Tuition fees system is fair says universities minister Jo Johnson

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University tuition fees will stay, Jo Johnson has said, arguing the system is "fair" and scrapping them would be "mind-bogglingly expensive".

There has been "misguided speculation" in recent days that the Government is planning to abolish the current higher education funding system, according to the universities minister, but this is not the case.

His comments, in an article for the Guardian, come after Damian Green, Theresa May's most senior minister, suggest Britain may need to have a national debate on university tuition fees.

In a speech at the weekend, the First Secretary of State said the current system - with fees of up to £9,250 a year - allows UK universities to deliver high quality courses and teaching, but acknowledged that student debt is a "huge issue", particularly after Labour unexpectedly eroded the Tories' Commons majority in the General Election after promising to scrap university tuition fees.

Mr Green urged his party to "change hard" to woo young, educated voters who backed Labour on June 8. 

Answering questions afterwards, he insisted the only way to bring down tuition fees while maintaining standards would be to put up taxes on working people, but acknowledged that may be the subject of a national conversation.

In his article, Mr Johnson said Mr Green's comments on tuition fees "has led to some misguided speculation that the Government was planning to abandon our successful higher education funding framework. It is not."

He went on to say that the Government has three objectives for undergraduate study: reduce inequality so that a university education is available to all; fund institutions at a level that allows them to provide world-class teaching and research; share the cost of doing this fairly between students and the taxpayer.

"Our current system of tuition fees, financed by loans repayable only by graduates earning above a certain level of income, is the only one that can reconcile all three," Mr Johnson said. "It is fair, and has won the praise of experts around the world."

He also said: "Abolishing fees would be mind-bogglingly expensive, requiring over £100bn of additional spending between now and 2025. This would need to come either from cuts to other public services, from increasing taxes on working people, or from increased borrowing - which would add to the burden for the next generation."

It is right to have a national debate about opportunities for young people, Mr Johnson said, adding that Mr Green was correct to say there is a need to think hard about issues such as housing, devolution and technological change.

"We will continue to look at the details of the student finance regime to ensure it remains fair and effective," the universities minister said.

"But getting rid of fees does little to help young people: indeed, by reducing access to education, by damaging the viability of our universities, and by piling tens of billions on to the national debt, it does precisely the opposite."

Mr Johnson's article comes on the day that a report found that most graduates will still be paying off student loans into their 50s, and three-quarters will never clear the debt.