Fears are growing that the government could raid school funding to pay for a cut in university tuition fees, with the leader of one headteachers’ union telling Tes it would be “a disaster” if money was diverted from schools to support the idea.
One source told Tes it was likely a government review would recommend expensive changes to HE fees, and that a "decent chunk" of paying for this could come from within the Department for Education's existing budget.
“There’s no way that it won’t come up with two or three big-ticket high-price items,” they said. “The issue is where does that money come from?”
“It’s very, very possible that a decent chunk of this will have to be found within DfE’s own budget.”
In October the prime minister Theresa May announced a major review of university funding. The new universities minister Sam Gyimah has not ruled out a cut in tuition fees.
However, concerns have been raised that money could be taken out of already fragile school budgets to fund a reduction.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that the DfE has very little slack as it has already raided its internal budgets. The respected think tank told Tes that reducing university fees to £6,000 a year would – if funded entirely from schools money – mean roughly a 2 per cent reduction in per-pupil funding.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it would be a “disaster” if the government took money from schools to lower fees.
“If that came out of the existing education budget at a time when schools are hugely struggling that would be a massive problem for all of us,” he said.
“It would be a disaster to see any of that money – even if it’s being done with the best of intentions – being diverted to somewhere else.”
But Lord Blunkett, a former Labour education secretary, is afraid that the money needed to lower fees would be “cut out of the rest of the education budget”.
He told BBC’s Today programme that early years’ education in schools could suffer from such a move.
“My fear at the moment is the present government might decide to slightly reduce the fee but they’ll cut it out of the rest of the education budget,” Lord Blunkett said.
“It was Aneurin Bevan who said that socialism was the language of priorities; we need to be able to invest in early years in the schools that are seeing a massive 8 to 10 per cent cut in real terms."
Chris Belfield, a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told Tes that if the government were to cut tuition fees from £9,250 down to £6,000, the long term cost to the public purse from additional university funding would be about £1.3 billion extra a year.
“If the DfE had to find £1.3 billion per year and it took that all out of the schools budget… it would amount to a decline of a couple of per cent in overall school spending per pupil,” Mr Belfield said.
Mr Belfield said it was “increasingly hard” for the DfE to free up any extra money to cut tuition fees, because the former education secretary Justine Greening had already “raided” internal budgets to give schools more money over the next couple of years.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the government did not “comment on speculation” and more would be announced, “in due course”.