Thursday, April 07, 2011

Why not charge £9,000?

There are many arguments against raising the cap on British university fees to £9,000. I would like to focus briefly on one of them. The argument is that £9,000 is beyond the cost to the university for educating an individual student. The argument goes that because the fee is higher than what is needed to educate an individual student the fee should not be charged.

To be charitable, lets accept the hypothetical figure of £7,500 as the cost of educating a student on average. Thus, a charge of £9,000 would represent additional income.

There remain several reasons why this argument does not work:

1. Even if £7,500 were the cost of educating an individual student on average, this remains an average figure and it may remain the case that educating some students may cost much higher. Students sitting degrees in subject x may cost less to teach than students sitting degrees in subject y. One group may effectively subsidize the other. One response is that the injustice to students in subject x becomes greater with higher fees: they were already subsidizing other students already and now they subsidize them even more. Why shouldn't others pay the full costs for their degrees? I think this challenge is strong with the best retort perhaps this: other more expensive (and often science-based) subjects also contribute to the institution's overall reputation. All students have an interest in secure and full funding for subjects at their institution. Thus, students in subject x have reason to subsidize students in subject y. Of course, much hinges on how much subsidy is at play.

A better argument pertaining to averages is that the fee of £7,500 may be the average of what it costs to educate individual students, but more should be charged to those who are best placed to afford it in order to best secure funding for those who are worse off. Thus, fees of £9,000 may grab headlines, but the extra income would subsidize -- not necessarily students in more expensive degree programmes, but -- students from less affluent backgrounds. I believe this is a more persuasive response. Indeed, the government is already demanding that universities have real commitments to provide relief to students who are worse off with funds raised from any higher fees. So that's one reason why the above argument doesn't work.

2. A second argument is fairly straightforward. Why should all universities remain standing still? Or better: why should all universities remain standing still in response to the government's desire to see a market in higher education? Higher income will mean greater resources to improve the student experience from improved and enhanced campus buildings and infrastructure, improved library resources, and more (and perhaps better rewarded) staff.

It might be said: we are in a global market. No one is forcing young people to do anything: it is a choice, not a demand, that they seek to attend universities. Universities compete internationally. If they are able to secure appropriate funding even where austerity measures are being enacted, then they should be able to secure these funds to remain competitive (and especially where there are greater efforts made to accommodate the worse off so that an excellent education, if freely chosen, is not denied because of costs).

3. A final reason why universities should be able to charge £9,000 is because the government has permitted this change in fees. Now the fact that an act is not illegal does not entail doing so is desirable or good. A white lie may bring no criminal charges, but it doesn't mean we should offer it. Nevertheless, it is curious for the government to be making such efforts at ensuring that as few as possible universities charge within the range of fees that they, the government, only recently agreed to permit. It's akin to saying that everyone can have an extra few widgets and then complaining that several seem interested. Surely, the most ill-thought higher education policy I know. Expect it to get worse before it gets better....

The above two reasons are not meant to be decisively in favour of higher fees. To be clear, I oppose fees and favour a system of free higher education. But recent claims that no university should charge £9,000 fall flat. There are better reasons in favour of no fees (in my view). However, now that the cap is raised, I suspect the balance of arguments may work against the government's latest musings. Universities have many reasons to charge as much as they can get. By all appearances, they will. Perhaps things would be much different if we saw the market in higher education that Lord Browne's proposals were meant to kick start in the first place?

UPDATE: You saw it here first: there will be a further review of higher education by 2015. It's a prediction, but -- in my view -- highly likely.

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