University staff are calling for a “radical” overhaul of tuition fees and higher education funding in England in a review of student finance.
Sally Hunt, leader of the UCU lecturers’ union, says the review must be more than “tinkering at the edges”.
The review, to be formally announced in the next few days, follows a promise by the prime minister to examine the cost of university.
Theresa May said the review would show “we have listened and we have learned”.
Ms Hunt, whose members are threatening strike action next week in a pensions dispute, says there needs to be a “fundamental look at university funding”.
“Too often recent reviews have simply resulted in finding new ways to saddle students with record levels of debt,” said Ms Hunt.
The system of student fees and loans should be based on an assumption that “higher education is a public good,” she said.
The fees review, expected to be announced by the prime minister and Education Secretary Damian Hinds, will consider cutting or freezing £9,250 fees and lowering interest rates of up to 6.1% for repayments.
There will also be discussion of funding for vocational courses and apprenticeships to tackle skills shortages.
But universities are concerned about a loss of funding – and Ms Hunt said that businesses should be asked to make a “fairer contribution” to the cost of higher education.
The Russell Group of leading universities has warned that any changes to fees and funding should not mean a limit on places.
“Finding the right balance is likely to involve making a series of difficult trade-offs,” said a spokesman for the university group.
The Russell Group said that the funding model that emerges from the review needs to give universities a “predictable and sustainable” income – as well as fees that reflect the benefits to students from having a degree.
Value for money
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he was concerned the review would focus too much on tuition fees and not “spend enough time on things like part-time funding and students’ cost of living”.
The review will examine how the level of fees and student debt can be balanced with the benefits of having a degree.
Former education ministers Justine Greening, Lord Willetts and Charles Clarke have called for the restoration of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students and have raised concerns over the level of interest charges.
Lord Adonis, another former education minister, has called for fees to be scrapped entirely.
A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the increase in fees to £9,250 and interest rates of up to 6.1% has pushed average student debt on graduation to more than £50,000.
Next week a number of university leaders and representatives will face a select committee inquiry into whether higher education is delivering “value for money”.
The Labour Party has been calling for a complete scrapping of tuition fees.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We will be conducting a major review of funding across tertiary education to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. Further details will be set out shortly.”