Oxford and Cambridge universities could charge tuition fees of up to £16,000 a year in return for taking on student loan debts under plans being considered for the Conservative Party manifesto, according to the former higher education minister.
The proposal would see graduates earning above £21,000 a year repay their loans to their alma mater, rather than the Treasury.
MP David Willets said he had explored the idea with dozens of the UK’s top universities, and asked them to consider whether they would want to buy their students’ loan debts in return for a rise in fees.
Both of the prestigious institutions said their teaching methods were putting them out of pocket, and they would require £16,000 in order to pay for teaching students in small groups within the expensive college system.
“There is a long-standing issue with Oxbridge, because their distinctive high model means that the £9,000 does not cover all their costs,” Willetts said in an interview with The Sunday Times.
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He added that research by the Cambridge and Harvard professors Anna Vignoles and Neil Shephard showed “the most prestigious universities [such as Oxford, Cambridge, and the Russell Group institutions] had the best loans repayment rates” because of higher employment rates.
Meanwhile, students at former polytechnics in inner-city areas had some of the lowest salaries and repayment rates.
“[Elite universities] would have a pretty solid stream of income from repayments”, he said.
As institutions would not be forced to join the scheme, there are fears that only the top ones could afford to take on the risk of having unpaid loans, raising the prospect of a two-tier system.
There are also worries that the plan could deter universities from admitting students from poor families and women because their earnings potential would be smaller.
But Mr Willets argued that if 18-year-olds were made aware of the study by Vignoles and Shepherd, they would know which institutions would be more likely to lead to higher lifetime earnings. He said it would transform the debate on social mobility if teenagers understood where and what they needed to study to have a well-paid career.
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