Monday, October 11, 2010

Should students pay more their education?

The previous generation received free university education and often free maintenance grants. This changed seemingly forever in the UK when then Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced university fees of £1,000 (for UK students) which later rose to about £3,000.

We will shortly learn the recommendations of a report into higher education by Lord Browne of Madingley. The expectation is that fees will rise and perhaps even more than double, according to the BBC:

"[. . .] The government is considering asking all but the poorest graduates in England to pay a "market" rate of interest on their student loans. Currently all graduates pay a low interest rate, linked to the base rate, on their tuition fee and maintenance loans. The earnings level at which they start repaying loans may also be raised. An official review of higher education funding is expected to call for the cap on tuition fees to be removed.

[. . .] Lord Browne's review is expected to recommend scrapping the upper limit on tuition fees in England. But under what is being termed a "soft cap" institutions that raise their fees above £7,000 per year would have to take on the risk of requiring that extra payment. This has led to speculation that £7,000 will be the upper fee for most degree courses.

This would mean more than doubling the current tuition fee of £3,290. And if the major cuts expected in the comprehensive spending review go ahead - it could mean few extra resources for a struggling university sector. [. . .]."

This expectation---namely, that the review might recommend ending a cap on university fees---is problematic for several reasons:

First, some have argued that it right that students shoulder most of the cost of their education. The reason is that students are the ones who benefit from their education.

If we were to examine this more closely, then there would appeat to be some link between the more x benefits and the cost that x should pay. However, it is the case that society benefits overall from higher university graduates. One benefit is a more highly skilled workforce. A second benefit is that university graduates most often achieve higher paying jobs. These higher paying jobs pay more tax. If we were to believe that those who benefit should pay their fair share, then society should pick up some of the tab because society benefits from having university graduates.

This latter point is worth highlighting. There have been some fears that students in the arts and humanities (and perhaps beyond?) may have to pay the full cost of their degrees in future. If this were recommended by the Browne Report and approved by the Government, then this would be a great injustice as it would suggest that only graduates -- and not the wider community -- benefits from graduates in these areas.

Secondly, removing a cap on fees is a major shift in public support for higher education. For some considerable time it has been held that the public ought to support higher education. Now it is argued that the public should fund much, much less (unless directly benefitting as a student). What can explain the sudden culture shift? Or what can explain the sudden culture shift beyond economic convenience?

Thirdly, the argument that the burdens of higher education's costs should somehow 'naturally' fall front and centre on students rings hollow. The only reason this has become viewed as necessary is because past governments have failed to maintain previous levels of funding.

Fourthly, there is a worry about how universities may cope. There has not been a full market for degrees. If the cap were doubled or even removed with swift implementation, then the real fear is that some universitites may get the figures wrong leading to problems with recruitment.

Finally, there is a further worry about whether higher fees can offset the deep cuts that may be proposed in government funding. Some reports are that universities may have to charge about £7,000 simply to stand still. Of course, students may expect to receive far more bang for their buck (so to speak) and demand additional resources, as well as services. Where are these to come from if the extra fees are needed simply to maintain present resources and services?

Welcome to the Big Squeeze in British higher education.

I predict major changes to be implemented by the coalition Government over the next 12-15 months that may permanently alter higher education. Expect to hear much more from me on this subject as further details become known.

UPDATE: Readers may be interested about the story here by the BBC about the debate over fees in Scotland.

1 comment:

Paul Johnson said...

I have to say I completely agree with you here.

Excellent article, and you picked up on some points I hadn't personally considered!