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George Osborne, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for finance and economics, announced that the limits on student numbers at UK universities will be abolished by 2015. In his Autumn Statement 2013 speech addressed to the House of Commons, Osborne confirmed plans to allow universities to admit as many students as they wish, starting with an increase of 30 000 more student places for the upcoming year. Financing additional student places, however, does not come without a price.
In order to allow for the increase in student places, more public funding for loans will have to be ensured. This, however, is not going to take place through an actual increase in public funding but rather by selling off old student loan books – a practice which is likely to become more common in the future (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, November 2013). Yet, Osborne’s proposition has not been spared from criticism. Given that a considerable number of graduates do not earn enough money to pay back their loans, selling off student loan books might not be a sustainable model for the UK government’s plan. The UK Russell Group pointed out the need for substantial long-term contributions from public funding if numbers for student places were really to be increased. Another issue arises from Osborne’s proposed focus on the so called STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The increase in student numbers is supposed to be accompanied by extra funding for these fields in order to contribute to the UK’s economic success in the global race. This, in turn, led critiques to recall the economic growth driven by creative technology, arts, fashion and design. The Russell Group pointed out the underfunding in STEM subjects, unsurprisingly calling for quality rather than quantity in higher education
Although the idea of making higher education more accessible by abolishing a limit on student numbers might seem good at the first glance, it remains questionable whether it can be built on a sustainable financial basis by selling off student loan books.