Tuesday 30 December 2008

Tuition fees: scrap the cap?

Student funding has the potential to re-emerge as a major point of contention in 2009 – but the battle lines of debate are already being drawn. The latest contribution to this debate seems to offer some accurate diagnoses of the problems besetting higher education; but unfortunately it offers a headline policy prescription that would be a retrograde step for equality.

The contribution is a Government-commissioned report that recommends axing the statutory cap on undergraduate tuition fees, effectively allowing universities to charge whatever they wish for courses. How high fees could go isn’t broached explicitly by the report’s author, Sir John Chisholm, but yesterday’s media coverage cited potentially £20k a year for a medicine degree and £6k-£7k for a history or English BA at a top institution. (I’ve tried searching out an online copy of the original report, but so far to no avail).

Chisholm, the chairman of QinetiQ and the Medical Research Council, is of course far from a lone voice in advocating universities being able to levy significantly higher fees on at least some of their students. Oxford University chancellor and former Tory party chairman Lord (Chris) Patten described fees – currently capped at £3,140 – as "intolerably" low in a
speech in September.

The new report is Chisholm’s view, not that of the Government; but 2009 is due to see universities secretary John Denham (a member of the Fabians’ executive committee) begin a review of tuition fees. This will come five years after the
2004 Higher Education Act scraped through the Commons with a five-vote majority; the Act introduced the principle of variable fees, although in practice most universities just raised their yearly charges for all courses from c.£1k to the maximum c.£3k.

I don’t think Chisholm will get to see his central recommendation enacted – at least not while Labour remains in power. Fair access to higher education cuts to the core of what it means to be a Labour representative or supporter, and the changes brought in by the 2004 Act stretched at the very bounds of what Tony Blair was able to achieve with a much greater majority than Gordon Brown now commands. Then, backbencher Nick Brown was an initial ringleader of the rebellion over variable fees before a last-minute switch of sides; now he is Government chief whip. His namesake, the then chancellor, was widely reported to have "reservations" over the policy. The Parliamentary Labour Party may have closed ranks over facing up to the economic crisis, but it is showing it is still prepared to flex its muscles over expanding Heathrow and selling a stake in Royal Mail.

While I disagree profoundly with the suggestion we should move to a free market in university courses, some aspects of Chisholm’s report still seem valid (I have no great expertise in higher education and write simply as a BA and MA graduate of the last 10 years). The UK is struggling to keep up with global competitors in terms of research and teaching quality; there is a distorted funding regime that prioritises research over teaching via the Research Assessment Exercise; and there is rightly concern over whether student cohorts are graduating with the right skills mix for the new, hi-tech, high value-added and ecologically sound industries that we need to see prosper.

But can the answer to these challenges really be to allow fees to hit US-style levels? No. There may already be a de facto multi-tier university system (yet surely there should be enough independent oversight of standards to assure students and employers that, say, a first from one institution is equivalent to that from any other?), but at least when it comes to choices and chances of entry between different institutions, academic ability stands as the key arbiter – rather than calculations over the particular level of debt a person or family is prepared to shoulder. I accept there is considerable support currently on offer to poorer students, and postponing the payment of fees until after the graduate is gainfully employed was a major positive in the 2004 Act. But I cannot imagine how in practice this support could be sufficiently extended to counteract the inequity that would flow from such as system as that proposed by Chisholm. Developing a culture of US-style alumni donations to finance scholarships – as Barack Obama benefited from – cannot happen over here overnight. And if we wish to particularly incentivise hi-tech and scientific learning, why should we charge students the most for these degrees, which tend to be the costliest to deliver?

In light of all this, it is incumbent on opponents of a free market system of higher education to build the case for a sustainable alternative. The National Union of Students'
response has been to call for a bigger wedge of cash to go to universities in the next Treasury spending round. The problem is that the medium-term outlook for public spending is tight – spending predictions for 2011/12 and 2012/13 were revised down in the recent pre-Budget Report. Whatever the economic climate, spending on universities always seems to get crowded out as a public priority when pitted against, say, the NHS and primary and secondary education.

A root-and-branch review – plus a thorough public debate – over what type of higher education system we want to serve us as individuals and as a society is therefore desperately needed. Personally, I am a supporter of progressive taxes and the greater use of tax hypothecation (earmarking specific revenues for specific purposes); it is crucial that those individuals and businesses who gain the most from the knowledge economy are pumping enough financial fuel back into its engine, the university system. In his aforementioned speech, Patten urged less Government intervention in the university sector, while admitting the state stumps up most of the cash to pay for it. Yet maybe it is time for even more strategic direction from the Department for Universities, Innovation & Skills – not to stamp on academic freedom and banish entire disciplines from the UCAS handbook; but, for example, to ensure that the study of subjects vital to the industries of the future are properly incentivised and promoted. Companies too should not be able to impinge on academic freedom, but how about forging greater partnerships between universities and the public and private sectors as part of providing for the lifelong learning of employees? And in the arts and social sciences, there may be mileage in aping the natural sciences and strengthening the concept of research centres, whereby individual institutions are centres of excellence in particular sub-disciplines but offer broader undergraduate tutelage.

One rebel MP, Paul Farrelly, said of top-up fees back in 2004: "The Labour party in parliament and the country should never be put in this position again." The Guardian’s Michael White commented: "Labour MPs on both sides of the row agree."

Hear, hear.

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