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What Rishi Sunak’s Education Policies Mean for UK Students

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Rishi Sunak has been the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative Party for several months now. Accordingly, it is time for an overview of what education policies he has supported in the past, and what they have meant for students across the UK.

The two main policies Sunak has supported throughout his previous roles as Chancellor and Chief Secretary to the Treasury have been to eliminate low-earning degrees, and to increase the duration until which student loans could be erased. These policies aim to improve the education of UK students and alleviate the strain on banks giving out student loans which are never repaid: this is at the expense of narrowing down options and placing a higher toll on student finances. The question remains, however, if these policies will be enacted or if he will back down. 

During the first race for the new PM in August of 2022, Sunak vowed to eliminate university courses that have low employability rates and do not improve “earning potential”. This policy was in an effort to raise the quality of university education in the UK and to produce graduates with more applicable and valuable skills to the UK workforce. Although “earning potential” sounds like a vague criterion, Sunak plans to break down the assessment of degrees into two: dropout rate, and employment opportunities. He excludes courses with high social value such as nursing. However, it remains unclear exactly how Sunak defines “high social value”. 

In February 2022 Sunak supported a policy to increase the length of time required to elapse in order for student loans to be forgiven. This policy is tied to the first pledge Sunak made, as he argues that the loan debt gathered by students can be easier paid off if their degree is conducive to high-paying jobs. The 2023 university cohort will now have to pay more towards their student debt each year and loan balances will be written off only 40 years after repayment has begun. Reports by the Guardian show that this policy will disproportionately affect women who are significantly more likely to take maternity leave, or even elect to drop out of the workforce during motherhood.  During these times debt will accumulate interest and will lead to these women being subject to steeper student loans repayments than their male counterparts. This has the potential to widen gender income and wealth inequalities. 

While Rishi Sunak has repeatedly stated that education is a core focus for him and the Conservative party, these reports have inspired little confidence in the possibility of actual reform. So far his policy pitches have remained as mere statements and promises. However, it is necessary to remember that we are still in the early stages of his leadership. Students and student media (including Roar) will be watching closely in the coming months to see how this government enacts its education policies.

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