After a general election in which tuition fees became a central issue, arguably boosting Labour’s support among key voters, it’s no surprise that Theresa May today launched a high-profile review of post-18 education. That it is a year-long review is perhaps even less of a surprise; with Brexit dominating Westminster and education funding an always polarising issue, the merits of delaying any difficult decisions are obvious.

The headline focus is around whether fees are too high and whether the current funding system is fit for purpose, especially in terms of supporting disadvantaged students in accessing higher education, with May criticising the fact that ‘the competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged has simply not emerged’.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds had previously told The Sunday Times that the review would consider whether degrees offer value for money, and would look at determining fees on ‘a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy’. This, he suggested, could lead to universities charging more for science subjects than arts degrees, although he told the Today Programme it was not as simple as ‘just separating arts from sciences’.

While this has grabbed the most attention so far, the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto promised to launch a major review of funding across tertiary education, and indeed this review is set to be more wide-reaching than university fees, focusing on access to higher education, funding, incentivising choice and competition, and delivering the skills the country needs.

As May explained, it will aim to address the ‘outdated attitude’ that favours academic over technical qualifications and sees the latter as ‘something for other people’s children’. Baroness Wolf, author of the 2011 Review of Vocational Education, will sit on the panel, which will be chaired by Philip Augar, a former non-executive director of the DfE.

Settling the parity of esteem question between academic and vocational education is hardly a new ambition; rather it is has been raised by any number of our most recent prime ministers and education secretaries. It’s been three and a half years since David Cameron pledged to create three million apprenticeships, and almost a year since the apprenticeship levy came in, yet figures published in January showed a stark decline in take up of places. And it’s not even a year since the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017; many in the higher education sector will be frustrated to see more tinkering on the horizon.

Reaction to the announcement of the review – formally launched by May in a speech in Derby – has been mixed, with some discussion of whether it should recommend a return to a system of maintenance support, a view which was vocalised by Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK.  Maintenance loans were controversially scrapped under the Cameron Government but the change occurred while May was in office.

Justine Greening, pushed out from the Department for Education in January, has already warned of potential ramifications for social mobility. We need to make sure, she stressed, ‘that we don’t end up with a system where young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds feel like they ought to do one of the cheaper degrees, rather than doing the degree they actually want that will unlock their potential in the future’.

The HE sector blog WonkHE had listed eight mistakes in the review even before its terms had been published, among them that ‘the outcome of reducing fees for some courses will be that more students will seek a place on those courses’. ‘If your starting premise is that those students will gain little value from those courses, why should you want more students – potentially those most socially disadvantaged – to study them,’ asked Mark Leach.

As the review progresses, we will have a clearer idea of what it will look at and the specific opportunities there will be for the sector to engage and feed in, although the terms of reference have been published today. Universities may well be concerned about the potential consequences of a variable fee model with caps, and will likely wish to have their say.

No doubt May will be hoping that the announcement of a review will win over some of those voters snatched up by Labour during the last election campaign, and act as a riposte to those who feel she has abandoned the social mobility agenda she set out in July 2016. Her team will also be hoping that the focus on vocational education and levelling the playing field will bolster support amongst those who feel left behind in Britain. But the review is not set to conclude until spring 2019 – and after all, a year is a very long time in British politics.

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