The Browne Stuff

I’m basically in purdah this week, shuttling to and fro between Cardiff and Swindon on the business of the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel. However, I couldn’t resist a brief early morning post about yesterday’s news about the report on higher education funding by Lord Browne. I haven’t had time to read the report in full, so won’t comment in detail on it, but a few things did strike me from what I’ve picked up from the media. Perhaps others will add their views through the comments box.

  • For a start it’s quite amusing how far wide of the mark most of the rumour-mongering about the report’s recommendations has been. In fact the proposals are far more radical than had been touted.
  • The suggestion of lifting the cap on fees entirely, and allowing universities to decide how much to charge for tuition, will delight the so-called “elite” universities, but will alarm those (like me) who worry about the impact on students from poorer backgrounds. Most difficult, however, as far as I’m concerned will be the impact on middle-grade universities who won’t know where to pitch themselves in the free market that such a move would create. We know that Oxbridge will be able to get away with charging pretty much whatever they like, and many of the former polytechnics will clearly go for the budget end of the market, but in between there will be tricky decisions to make.
  • The increased fee is to be offset by a cut of a whopping 80% (from £3.5bn to £0.8bn) in the teaching grant to English universities. A cut of this scale may well mean that some courses do not receive any direct contribution from the taxpayer at all (the so-called “unit of resouce”). If this goes ahead it will undoubtedly lead to course closures across the country. Although I would oppose a blanket cut of this scale, I’m not against the idea of withdrawing support from Mickey Mouse courses and concentrating it on important subjects.
  • It seems likely, and indeed there are already signs, that full implementation of the Browne proposals will be politically difficult for the ConDem coalition.  In fact, unless some of the recommendations are diluted, this may well lead to a full-scale revolt. We’ll have to wait and see.
  • Vince Cable has endorsed the report, despite his own party’s previous opposition to raising tuition fees. Any resisual respect I had for him is going down the plughole very rapidly indeed.
  • Finally, I’ll just point out that, even if they are fully implemented, the draconian cuts to English higher education funding are not necessarily going to be replicated here in Wales (or in Scotland or Northern Ireland). The Welsh Assembly has issued a statement on the Browne report, but clearly doesn’t know what to do about it. If they make good decisions now, Welsh universities could prosper by bucking the English trend, but if they get it wrong….

Anyway, that’s all for this am. Got a train to catch!


47 Responses to “The Browne Stuff”

  1. Rhodri Evans Says:

    As you say Peter, Oxbridge (and I’d like to add my Alma mater Imperial) can pretty much get away with charging whatever they like and probably still fill their courses. The post-92 “universities” will probably mainly pitch themselves at the bargain end of the fees being charged, which leaves mid-rankIng universities in a bit of a quandry as to what to charge.

    It will also probably mean different fees being charged for different courses, with presumably science courses and medicine charging more than courses in the humanities.

    I’m not in principle against charging fees. I worked for 9 years in the USA, spending 8 of those 9 years working at places that charged the very highest rates in tuition fees (> $40,000 per a year a decade or so ago). But the US has always had a privatised, market driven higher education system. Parents save for their children’s college fees as soon as the children are born.

    We in the Disunited Kingdom do not have that tradition. I suspect most parents of pre-university age children have not been saving anything like the sums of money that three years at £7,000 12,000 per year will incurr. I know I haven’t, and I have three children whom, I wouldn’t be surprised, all will aspire to go to university.

    I sincerely hope Wales does not follow England in this. Wales, like Scotland, has always set great store in higher education, and has always been a more socialist country than England, less in love with free market capitalism. We shall see what the Welsh Assembly Government decides to do, but its hands may be tied as Wales does not have separate tax raising powers (yet).

    • I’m not in principle against charging fees. I worked for 9 years in the USA, spending 8 of those 9 years working at places that charged the very highest rates in tuition fees (> $40,000 per a year a decade or so ago).

      How did you pay them?

      Parents save for their children’s college fees as soon as the children are born.

      Parents who can afford them do so in some cases (if they don’t want to, that’s tough). Those who cannot afford to don’t.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:


      I did not pay fees in the US, I was working at these institutes, not studying….

      Yes, parents who can afford to save for their children’s undergraduate education. And, some parents will restrict their children to cheaper universities because they have not saved enough for the more expensive ones. And, some children will get no help from their parents, and incurr large debts in doing an undergraduate degree.

    • I did not pay fees in the US, I was working at these institutes, not studying….


      There is an additional group of students: those who are poor and for whatever reason don’t qualify for a loan. They don’t even have the option of graduating with a huge debt—they won’t graduate at all.

  2. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Just to add – it seems the Liberal Democrats (whom I didn’t vote for) have totally reneged on their election promises about abolishing tuition fees.

  3. I’m wondering whether the main difference between tuition fees and any alternative way of funding the current system is that with tuition fees it is the students who end up in debt whereas without tuition fees it is the government that ends up in debt.

    I.e., increased tuition fees merely make the government balance sheet look better without actually changing anything (we’re still borrowing from [investing in/gambling on] the future just as much either way).

    Then there’s the (perhaps more important) question of how much I benefit from a university education vs. how much society as a whole benefits from me having a university education, and how that should be reflected in who pays for it.

  4. Who will charge what for what? The level of overseas fees set by different universities for different courses probably gives some idea of what fee level, and variations, the market (albeit a *different* market) will bear. There was a nice report on this from the Sutton Trust earlier in the month:
    The table on page five compares six subjects (including physics) across 20 universities. Everything from English at Derby to Physics at Imperial costs >£8000pa, i.e. well above Browne’s soft ceiling of £6000. Higher fees for physics (labs?), business and economics (demand?), London and “prestige”. Imperial stands way out of line at £21k compared to £12k-15k at the other high-ranked schools.

    • Just to follow up on this — It turns out that the tuition costs in the Sutton Trust table do *not* include the “college fee” levied at Cambridge (nor presumably those at Oxford, though I didn’t check explicitly). This adds an additional £4k-£5k, which makes quite a difference to the comparison between institutions.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ll make a number of points, some of which have been mentioned in Peter’s article and in the comments above.

    (1) Vince Cable did not address clearly the issue of whether there would be a cap to fees, as far as I heard it. He discussed raising the fees paid by home undergraduates by a factor of more than two, but he was uncommittal about whether the cap would be abolished. My understanding was that he is yet to consider that aspect of the Browne Review.

    (2) A central issue here is whether sharply increased fees will deter potential students from attending university. If so, total student numbers could fall somewhat. Some universities are already in debt. Some less popular institutions could find difficulty in filling their student places and could find their income falling sufficiently to threaten their survival. We could see a number of universities go to the wall. These will mostly be universities which are less popular because of their location, their position in league tables, the cost of their courses in terms of fees, the availibility of courses, and sundry other reasons. More popular universities may be strengthened, less popular ones could be in difficulty.

    (3) If potential students are deterred from attending universities on grounds of cost, the effect will deter preferentially those people less confident about their future earning potential. There is a strong danger that this will lower the participation of people from poor backgrounds in higher education, reinforcing the class system.

    (4) Universities will attempt to offer large bursaries to students from poorer families to encourage them to attend university. The downside of this is that the funding of bursaries swallows up fee income from the general student body. As a result, student fees do not actually generate as much money to fund universities as some people think.

    (5) Some universities have a large fraction of students from poorer families, and carry out a very important function to society. It will be difficult for these institutions to divert income from their student fees in general to offer bursaries to students from poorer backgrounds: there may be insufficient money to do this.

    (6) The art of choosing the level of fees for each university will be complex and impossible to predict. It may be difficult for individual institutions to get it right. Some universities may get it so badly wrong that they could hit financial problems, even get into financial crisis.

    (7) Students may respond to significantly higher fees by wanting to find highly-paying jobs even more than at present. This could boost university courses such as business and economics over the arts and humanities. Very worryingly, it may deter graduates from applying to study for PhDs, including in science.

    (8) As Peter argued in the original article, Oxbridge will probably be able to charge very high student fees, were the cap to be lifted altogether. This would provide even greater riches for those two institutions. However, there is a danger that wider society may see access to Oxford and Cambridge universities as being something that is bought, rather than being meritocratic. That would not do much for the reputation of either institution.

    (9) Vince Cable is proposing transferring a sizeable part of the funding for universities from his department to graduates’ bank accounts. That means his department is likely to make significant spending cuts. That might reduce pressure to impose swingeing cuts on other subjects administered by his department. Such as science. Or maybe not.

    (10) The Conservative/Liberal Democrat is introducing a policy on student fees that is the inverse of the Liberal Democrats’ policy at the last election. Their manifesto last May stated:

    “We will:

    “Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.”

    Liberal Democrat education policy as stated currently on their website is very similar.

    (11) A rebellion by Liberal Democrat members of parliament, were they to stand by their election pledges, would not be sufficient to defeat the proposals in the House of Commons. There should be sufficient Liberal Democrats in ministerial posts (who would not rebel) to carry the proposals, provided that there is not a large Conservative rebellion (which is unlikely).

    And now to geography and devolution.

    (12) The Browne Report recommends that a new Higher Education Council is created by merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office for Fair Access, and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. My understanding is that the Office for Fair Access is an England-only body, as is HEFCE. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator is a complaint body that regulates universities in both England and Wales. The QAA is an United-Kingdom-wide body. The Browne Report, which considers England only, fails to address the the various geographical competences of the bodies.

    (13) When the U.K. government reduces its funding of universities in England (replaced by higher student fees), this cut in spending in England will produce a proportional cut in funding from the U.K. Treasury to the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (via the Barnet Formula). The devolved administrations could choose not to reduce their funding of higher education in their nations, so as to maintain student fees at their current levels, but this would require cuts to other functions such as health, schools, social services and roads to compensate. In addition, higher education funding in Wales is organised under the same legal framework as England and the National Assembly for Wales has such tortuously constrained law-making functions that it may be unable to do anything other than impose the English fees policy.

    We live in interesting times.

    • telescoper Says:


      You’re right that Wales will receive less money as a result of the English cuts. It may decide to cut HE as much as England does, or not, but if it doesn’t it will have to make savings elsewhere. I think it’s very unlikely that Welsh universities – historically underfunded compared to their English (and Scottish) counterparts – will do better in any new funding regime. It does seem likely though that there will be some sort of a fee cap in Wales even if there isn’t one in England. I doubt if the Labour-Plaid coalition would countenance such high fees as some English universities wish to charge. We’ll have to wait and see, however.

      What I would say, though, is that that if the Welsh Assembly decides to cut the teaching funds to HEFCW by 80% as appears to be on the cards for HEFCE then the entire rationale for HEFCW’s existence vanishes. There would be no point in operating a quango in Wales for the purpose of dispensing such a small amount of money. My feeling is that if this happens, the HE sector would end up being run directly from the Welsh Assembly.

      I’d also say that I think Wales should withdraw from the REF if this happens too.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      It is not clear to me that the Welsh Assembly Government would have the legal power to act differently to England, except in the sense that it does at present through having a grant/bursary scheme that acts to reduce the net sum paid by students. Even if the Welsh government had the legal power to follow its ow course, it is difficult to imagine it being able to squeeze other areas of public spending to find significant funds to keep fees in Wales much lower than England. The Welsh budget is already significantly squeezed.

    • A central issue here is whether sharply increased fees will deter potential students from attending university.

      It’s not an issue, it’s a fact.

      If potential students are deterred from attending universities on grounds of cost, the effect will deter preferentially those people less confident about their future earning potential. There is a strong danger that this will lower the participation of people from poor backgrounds in higher education, reinforcing the class system.

      This, of course, is the Tory agenda. Thinking otherwise is naive.

      I realise that the UK is not used to election governments. However, one can’t criticise a party for not implementing all campaign pledges unless these had the proviso that these were requirements for entering into a coalition at all or unless all parties in the coalition made such a pledge. Politics involves compromise. Otherwise, all politicians would have to prefix every sentence with “assuming that we have the appropriate majority in Parliament”. At an extreme, I have even heard people criticising politicians for not keeping their promises even when the party in question lost the election. Of course, campaign pledges have an implicit “if elected” and an implicit “this is something we hope to agree on in the coalition contract”.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Sorry, the correct link for the Lib Dem education policy is

  7. Woken Postdoc Says:

    Thanks to these changes, I predict even *more* pressure on the research councils.

    If undergraduates stagger under house-sized debts then postgrad scholarships *must* inflate to a level that helps doctoral students to clear this debt. Otherwise, it’s likely that very few of the (native) scientists who stay in the UK will ever be able to afford a home or family. In greater numbers, talented individuals will choose permanent exile abroad. You’ll only retain postdocs willing to endure deepest asceticism.

    • telescoper Says:

      Wouldn’t it be better for posgraduate studentships to be kept less than the £21k pa needed to trigger repayment?

      The point about house prices is well made, but they’re set to crash anyway as unemployment rises steeply and billions are taken out of the economy.

  8. Steve Jones Says:

    I am puzzled by the talk of the effect on students from poorer backgrounds –

    Lord Browne –

    “Students do not pay charges, only graduates do; and then only if they are successful – the system of payments is highly progressive”

    “Students pay nothing up front. Graduates only make payments when they are earning above £21,000 per year – for all students, studying for a degree will be a risk free activity”

    Surely what matters is not how wealthy your background is, but how wealthy,after graduation, your future is.

    • telescoper Says:

      Perhaps students could avoid the charges by simply not graduating at the end of the course.

      The main issue as far as I’m concerned is whether the new system will provide full scholarships or maintenance grants. I would not have been able to go to university without something to cover my living costs at the time of study as I didn’t have a wealthy family to provide support. I think it is this that is likely to deter many students from less affluent backgrounds (like I was).

    • Yes, maintenance loans (not grants!) and the full cost of tuition are included in the scheme. the plan includes (from the exec summary): “Support for living costs available to all through an annual loan of £3,750. No means testing for access to loans for living costs.” So the student (and their family) are not expected to have any cash to lay out when they start.

      So far as I understand it, the loan must sill be repaid if the student fails to graduate (though only after reaching the £21,000 earnings threshold). So, unlike a “graduate tax” there is no unintended incentive for students to study but avoid graduation.

      Regarding PhD students staying on, note that no interest (above inflation) accrues until meeting the income threshold. So the loan is effectively frozen until lucrative postdoc position is secured!

      Having said all that, the prospect of a >20k debt (albeit on unusually good terms) at an early stage in life must be daunting for all prospective students, and differentially more so for those from less wealthy backgrounds. The challenge is to inform all those who can benefit that higher education is still achievable for them. I suspect part of that challenge will be to correct alarmist (though maybe unintentional) misinformation about the new system, whatever the eventual details of its implementation.

    • They start having to pay when they earn 21k a year – hardly a high salary if you have huge debts to clear.

    • Mark – agreed, it is not a very high salary and the total loans involved are much larger. But this is still a significant improvement on the current £15k repayment threshold.

      • telescoper Says:

        There’s a whole lot of difference between a maintenance grant and a maintenance loan….

    • Peter – Yes, there is a lot of difference. But equally, there’s a lot of difference between a maintenance loan (with terms very much more favourable than anything you’d find on the high street) and “nothing to cover my living costs”, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that either.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      “Having said all that, the prospect of a >20k debt (albeit on unusually good terms) at an early stage in life must be daunting for all prospective students, and differentially more so for those from less wealthy backgrounds”

      Of course, it matters how it is presented.

      Graduates will have 10’s of thousands student debt to the government to pay off at a rate of 9% if (and only if) they earn over £21,000.

      but they will also be “burdened” by a lifetime of 100’s of thousands of tax “debt” to the government which has to be paid off at a rate of 20% once they start earning only £6,500.

      No one worries how daunting this is for young people, perhaps because it isn’t really daunting at all.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      “They start having to pay when they earn 21k a year – hardly a high salary if you have huge debts to clear.”

      Under Lord Browne’s proposals a graduate earning 21k wouldn’t pay back a penny.

      A graduate earning 25k would be paying back only £7 a week.

      The payment threshold is reviewed regularly to bring it into line with growth in earnings.

      Any balance remaining after 30 years is written off.

    • Perhaps students could avoid the charges by simply not graduating at the end of the course.

      I don’t know if it is true, but I heard that in Greece property tax is due only after a house has been completely built. So there are millions of houses which have had one tile missing from the roof for decades.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      I too have heard the same story about Greeks not having to pay property tax on an uncompleted property. I visited Greece this past summer, and heard the story repeated several times there too.

  9. Rhodri Evans Says:

    As far as I’m aware, in the US a given college/university does not charge a different tuition fee depending on what course one takes. However, this may be because, under the liberal arts system, one spends about 50% of one’s time doing courses outside of one’s major.

    All the top colleges and universities in the US (i.e. the expensive ones) offer generous scholarships. This is largely funded by their large endowments. Swarthmore College, where I taught in 93-94, is able to offer 100% scholarships to some students, so claims to offer places based on academic ability, not the ability to pay the high fees. They have a huge endowment, pretty much higher per student than any other US Higher Education institute.

    If Higher Educational institutes in England (and Wales?) are allowed to (a) charge whatever they like and (b) charge different tuition fees for different courses, I cannot see how this will not lead to (i) an even bigger gap developing between the better, more prestigious, universities and the others and (ii) that certain courses like medicine and science will be more expensive to do at a given university than a cheaper course like history or english. Whether courses like law, which are presumably cheap to run as they do not involve expensive practical aspects, but which prepare students for a potentially very well paid career, would pitch themselves at the top end of the fees scale is an interesting question.

    Given that fees have been around for the best part of a decade now, albeit lower than what is proposed, surely there must be statistics on the effect they have had on children from poorer backgrounds going, or not going, on to Higher Education. There must also, presumably, be some research on whether it is the student him/herself who repays the costs of a university education, or whether it is the parents who pay or help pay the costs. When I went to university there were no tuition fees, and there was a means tested maintenance grant. As a consequence, I had no debts coming out of my three years of study. Would I have thought differently about going to university under a system where I would expect to leave with tens of thousands of pounds of debt? I don’t know….

    • so claims to offer places based on academic ability, not the ability to pay the high fees

      Two points. First, even if this is true, there is still a problem. Yes, if you are smart, you can get a scholarship. However, if you aren’t, you can’t, so rich but mediocre students can pay for the prestigious degree. Second, not all “financial aid” is a scholarship. Some of it involves doing some work for the university. Yes, the equivalent hourly wage might be OK, but still. Before deciding to return to Europe, I spent a couple of weeks at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. (I had been accepted there before I came to Europe for the first time, intending to stay just a year. After that year, apart from wanting to return to Europe, my opinion of the Great Books programme had changed.) I had almost a full scholarship, mainly from my parents’ companies (so if your parents don’t work for a company which provides scholarships, tough luck). I remember once after lunch I was sitting in the cafeteria talking about Big Important Things with another student while a third student was busing the tables, a requirement of her financial aid. Not the best atmosphere, to say the least.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Philip – yes it is certainly true that rich kids in the US seem to be able to “buy” their way into the most prestigious universities despite only having mediocre academic ability. George W Bush would be a good example of this.

      You are also right that some colleges/schools require a student to do work for the college/university as part of their financial aid. I don’t think this was ever the case at Swarthmore, but I may be wrong. It would certainly vary from place to place, and even within a given place there may be different kinds of scholarships available, some involving work and some not.

  10. Phil Uttley Says:

    According to the beeb, Browne proposes that:

    “Public investment should continue, at a level similar to the current one (£700m per year) to support certain courses, such as science and technology subjects, medicine, nursing and “strategically important” language courses”

    This would at least provide a subsidy and fill the role of cutting funding to “Mickey Mouse” degrees, but given the cuts to the HEFCE budget are 80% I’m sure fees will still have to rise for these courses (and universities may choose to pocket the subsidy – which would be good for STEM departments I suppose). The Govt could impose some sort of limits on fees for these subjects in return for getting this subsidy, which might help with take-up.

    If the maintenance grants aren’t being cut (in fact they may be increased?) then I can’t see the financial issue for students from poorer backgrounds, given the changes to grant levels etc. However I do think the differences in educational aspiration and quality of education will adversely impact students from poorer backgrounds unless there are serious measures like bursaries and other schemes. Students who come from poorer areas may not have got the best out of school but would come into their own at Uni may wonder about the point of paying so much money when they can’t see the opportunities ahead (esp. if they are limited in where they can go to university).

    I agree with Bryn that there will also be a knock-on effect for PhDs. This will be not unlike the knock-on effect that fees initially had: PhD grants rose substantially, and I think there was also some follow-through in terms of increasing postdoc and academic salaries. One outcome maybe that certain professional salaries rise to compensate people for the cost of degrees. This would be positive – for those who still have jobs…

  11. telescoper Says:

    Interesting comments on the prospects for Wales and Northern Ireland here:

  12. Paddy Leahy Says:

    OK, I have read the report. If implemented in full and properly explained to the public (very difficult, given all the vested interests spreading disinformation) it would be pretty good for the UK university system (those parts which adopt it).

    As Bryn Jones says, popular universities would benefit (taking in more students) and unpopular ones would lose students and might even close. Why is that bad? Why does that disadvantage the students who formerly went to “unpopular” universities and now end up in a place more to their liking?

    The radical part of the report is that it goes a long way to restoring university autonomy, instead of the current system where each has to take exactly as many students as the government dictates. Universities and students both get more power, government less.

    Another potential revolution is student loans to support part-time degrees, which should lead to more of these and so more mature students, and perhaps fewer students entering university right after school. From my experience with mature students, that would be pretty positive both for students and university.

    As far as I can see, the main reason for the fees/loan system is that since the money is notionally owed by the students, it doesn’t count as government debt. The government acts as an agent to buy money in bulk at rock-bottom rates, gives it to the universities (fees) and students (maintenance…it goes straight to their landlords), and passes the debt on to the students. Technically, the money never goes through the treasury. Although this looks like a huge transfer from public to private funding, it’s not so big, because by design the loans won’t be paid back in most cases (same applies to current student loans, in fact). The residual loan is written off after 30 years, which constitutes a back-door government (i.e. general taxpayer) funding of the courses, delayed by a generation and so off the books during the current funding crunch. Browne estimates this will continue to be larger than the actual repayments by graduates.

    Unfortunately, the government looks set to hamstring the proposals. Setting a cap of 7K on fees and simultaneously subtracting HEFCE funding of about 3.5K per course (which is the Browne working assumption, presumably well-informed) would force all universities to charge the maximum 7K in order to maintain current cut-to-the-bone income; no chance of restoring funding per student to 1990 levels. Government will then argue that it has to continue to ration places because the new universities won’t be able to attract students by offering cheaper courses.

    Mind you, “cheaper courses” is mainly smoke and mirrors if the loans don’t actually have to be repayed in full. This is probably why the government is against higher fees: they would end up footing the bill for to a large extent. (Browne would limit extortionate fees by clawing back an increasing fraction over 6K so universites would get nothing but bad publicity by charging over 12K).

    By the same token, there is no rational basis for students from poor backgrounds being priced out of Oxbridge or any other high-status university. Higher notional fees simple do not translate into higher repayments, unless you are one of the top 10-20% of graduate earners who actually manage to pay off the loan, in which case you can surely afford to do so however poor your family was. Oxbridge et al will doubtless mount a high-profile campaign to advertise this fact because the last thing they want is to become a finishing school for rich kids. On the other hand, the government has absolutely no interest in pointing this out.

    • telescoper Says:

      The problem with the “market” led philosophy is that students generally speaking only do one degree and they have very little clue before they start as to which Universities are actually going to be better of them. They don’t get a chance to test-drive, and can’t really take it back or do another one if they didn’t like the first degree!

      The other point worth making is that if the unit of resource is really cut to the bone then some universities could decide that it’s not worth the candle to stay in the public system for the peanuts they are receiving from the state. It would be a rational decision for them to go private, where they can charge what they like.

      In Cardiff, for example, only about 25% of Cardiff’s income comes from HEFCW; the rest comes from students in fees. The fraction is lower in some of the big English universities. Suppose that income falls to 10%. Why should a university put up with all the red tape for such a small subsidy? Why not just go private and do what you like with your fees?

      Under the Browne proposals, if a university chooses to charge fees over 6K per annum then it must hand a big slice back to the Treasury even for courses that receive little or no support. Why not just go it alone, charge a higher fee and keep it all?

      I can really see Oxbridge going down this route.

    • Oxbridge et al will doubtless mount a high-profile campaign to advertise this fact because the last thing they want is to become a finishing school for rich kids. Really? 🙂

      I am puzzled by the following: As far as I can tell (talking with examiners), in the UK a given mark on a degree in a given subject means the same whatever university awarded the degree. Assuming this is true (it is certainly not true in many other countries), how does one account for the fact that the divide between us (everyone else) and them (Oxbridge) is bigger in the UK than corresponding divides in all other countries (where they might have some justification)? (Of course, objective criteria such as the teaching evaluation rated Manchester above Cambridge, but I digress.)

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Although a 2-1 from any university in a given subject is meant to equate to a 2-1 from any other, I have found based on my own experience of studying and working in different UK universities that it seems to require different levels of ability to get the same class degree in different places, with it being harder to get e.g. a 2-1 in a more prestigious place than it is in a less prestigious place. I have worked at places where students were awarded a first, but would not have even passed the degree at e.g. Imperial (where I did my undergraduate degree).

      • telescoper Says:

        I’ve worked as external examiner at a number of institutions and I do think that degree classes are broadly equivalent across UK universities (at least in Physics). I think it’s true though that, even within the same institution, the level of achievement required for a 1st class degree in different disciplines varies enormously. We had a Physics undergraduate in Cardiff who had already done a degree in English last year, and she said the intellectual challenge and amount of work required of Physics students was way higher. She got a First.

  13. Paddy Leahy Says:

    “Going private” would mean opting out of the government student loan system, which means that students would have to pay fees up front or get a commercial loan with higher interest, and a fixed and heavy repayment schedule. If Oxbridge did that they would be abandoning academic excellence in favour of teaching the very rich. Can you imagine you colleagues there wanting to go down that route? I can’t.

  14. Sorry for joining this a little late, but what happens if you take a loan for an undergraduate course, then do a Masters or PhD (presumably still under the radar for repayments) and then leave the country?

    This might seem a glib question, but with all the talk of a new brain-drain and other countries increasing their science funding, this might seem an attractive route to many.


    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed. If you don’t come back for 25 years your loans will be written off anyway.

    • Paddy Leahy Says:

      This is not discussed in the Browne report, IIRC. Under the present system I believe you’re supposed to make repayments based on the level of your foreign income. I have heard that not much attempt is actually made to chase people in that situation (such as EU students who do an undergrad degree in England, who are eligible for a loan on their fees). The standard repayment route is PAYE, which obviously doesn’t work if you are abroad.

      About 37% of school leavers go to university, and another 10% or so do a degree within a few years, so only a small fraction of them will emigrate. There is no point in going to Europe just to escape your loan, because, at least in the major countries, you would be charged a higher rate of tax than UK (tax + loan repayments). Most PhDs who go abroad come back, in which case it wouldn’t be a good idea to stop repayments while out of the country.

  15. Phil Uttley Says:

    Re: going private – doesn’t this also mean opting out of the RAE? If so then I can’t see it happening as long as the RAE provides some decent cash (for many departments the amount is similar to teaching income).

    Re: people moving abroad – the income differences due to different wages etc greatly outweigh the effects of saving 50 K by staying away for 25 years. If I want to go to the US, I can make that 50K up in about 5 years from the higher salary and generally lower cost of living. So I think the effect will be small compared to the existing incentives. It might however push people to go abroad if they can get higher salaries there. The upshot may be more pressure for salaries here to increase (at a cost of smaller volume of research as long as funds stay limited).

    • Woken Postdoc Says:

      A university wanting to “go private” can create a front company as a device to do the teaching. This entity hires lecture theatres from the parent institution, and pays lecturers by the hour as contractors. For instance, the ancient and venerable “University of Swindon” could create “Swindon University Education Limited” wholly owned by the university senate. The remaining public part of the university could concern itself with government-funded research and postgraduate students.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, it would mean that. But total HEFCE income (including QT and QR) is only of the order of 10% of total income for several universities…

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