The English Higher Education Funding Mess

One of the items that sneaked out in the news last week was the Augar report on the future of post-18 education and funding in England. A review led by a former equities broker was never likely to be friendly to the higher education sector, and so it seems to have turned out.

The headline recommendation that the level of tuition fee should be reduced from £9250 to £7500 seems to me rather silly: it’s enough of a reduction to cause serious financial problems to universities if the shortfall is not replaced by increased teaching grants  but not enough to make a qualitative difference to students. In fact, since the report also recommends reducing the threshold for repaying student loans, and increasing the term over which they will be repaid, many graduates will end up paying significantly more in the long run.

To be fair the Augar report does recommend:

Government should replace in full the lost fee income by increasing the teaching grant, leaving the average unit of funding unchanged at sector level in cash terms.

Unfortunately, I can easily see a Conservative government implementing the cut in tuition fees but not making up the difference with grants.

As I have blogged about before (many times e.g here) the current level of resource is insufficient to fund teaching STEM disciplines properly. This graphic is from a few years ago, but the situation has not changed significantly:

The annual cost per student in Arts and Humanities disciplines is typically around £6K whereas for STEM disciplines the figure is typically over £10K. The former are effectively subsidizing the latter in the current system. If the maximum fee chargeable is £7.5K then this subsidy will be impossible. Bear in mind also that a slice of the fee is used to fund bursaries and other schemes for widening participation, so only a fraction of that funding is available to be redistributed. It’s a system that is stacked against STEM disciplines already, and that will only get worse if the Augar proposals are implemented.

Another problem with the stance taken by the `independent panel’ is that it seems to regard the only useful courses to be those that lead to high earnings upon graduation. There is even a call to cut funding for course that do not produce `outputs’ that are paid high wages.  I find it profoundly depressing that the purpose of a university is reduced to such an empty utilitarian level. Is this what the education system is to become?

Increasing their future earning potential may indeed be why some people go to university, and good luck to them if it is, but others are driven by quite different goals. Anyone who wants to be a research scientist, for example, faces years of low salaries and insecure contracts until, if they’re lucky, they get a secure job with a decent wage. In this case and no doubt in countless others, students go to university because learning is and end in itself.

While I am critical about the Augar review’s narrow-minded view of higher education, I will give credit where it is due and point out that it does recommend the re-introduction of maintenance grants which, if implemented, would be a positive.

When I went to University (in 1982) I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student on a grant was fairly comfortable. Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly. There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.

In summary, then, I think UK universities are right to be worried about, especially as it comes on top of the damage already being done by Brexit. But Brexit has also induced a paralysis in Westminster that means the legislation needed to enact the Augar recommendations is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon. Although that means that cuts – and let’s face it, that’s what this review is about – are likely to be delayed, the uncertainty will make it difficult for universities to plan their finances.

To summarize the summary: it’s a mess and I’m glad I’m out of it. As I wrote a in 2018, after I’d decided to move to my current position in Ireland:

Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other idiocies that have been inflicted on UK* universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

*To clarify, these idiocies are mainly of English origin, but the devolved systems of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had to deal with the consequences so they have been inflicted on the entire United Kingdom.

I just hope Ireland resists the temptation to destroy its own education system. Recent history does reveal a remarkable willingness to implement stupid ideas from across the Irish Sea but perhaps Brexit will put a stop to that.

 

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28 Responses to “The English Higher Education Funding Mess”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Indeed. very timely warning for Irish sector to avoid seeking fees+loans as the ‘solution’ to underfunding.

  2. “Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance.”

    Indeed. As for paying back fees, if all student costs are covered by taxes, then with a progressive income tax, those who earn a lot automatically pay back their costs: simpler and more efficient.

  3. “I just hope Ireland resists the temptation to destroy its own education system.”

    How is the system there? Suppose someone (from Ireland) wants to study in Ireland. Is this possible if one has no funds of one’s own (nor someone who could provide them)?

  4. Tell me again why a plumber should subsidise someone doing a PhD in astrophysics just because they are interested in it.

    • telescoper Says:

      Curiosity driven research is essential to scientific progress, it contributes to knowledge and the training of a future generation of scientists. This applies to other fields too.

      • I said “just because” (As suggested in the blog post). If there are additional benefits to society other than the pleasure of the individual student, then society should identify the value and pay up. It also begs another interesting question: What % of national output should be invested in research that has no identifiable benefit to society? 50%? 0.005%? (Please show your workings). I’m just wondering how we might get agreement on this. By the way, I chose to mention astrophysics as it is generally felt to contain some useful stuff. I could have picked drama research or post-modern philosophy.

      • telescoper Says:

        The “just because” implied by the post is actually the opposite. I’m arguing that there is (or should be) more to education than training for future employment.

        I’m not aware of any research that has no benefit to society so I’m afraid I can’t answer your loaded question.

      • I did not disagree that there might be additional benefits to education, I just asked that they be identified and quantified. As for useless research we we might have a peek at post-modern philosophy and some connected areas. Guessing that we’re all educators here (I’ve been in the system for 35 years) I would presume that we’re all agreed that opinion and anecdote are no substitutes for evidence and precision (not something that you find in post-modernism).

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m interested to read that you are an `educator’. Would you mind telling me in what field and at what level, as I don’t seem to be able to access the web page provided.

      • I might, if you promise not to pull rank. Is it relevant to how you are planning to answer the question?

    • telescoper Says:

      A better question would be why should a plumber subsidise the profits of a tax-dodging multinational company?

    • Sigh (to brianmulligan, of course, not to Peter); some things never change. Almost a quarter of a century ago I copied this quote for occasions like this:


      In answer to David Blunkett’s question `why should it be the woman getting up at 5 o’clock to do a cleaning job who pays for the privilege of them [graduates] earning a higher income?’, we should retort `why are you assuming that a woman doing a cleaning job will never want to enter higher education or to send her daughter there?’

      —Sue Blackwell [vice-president of Birmingham Association of Universit Teachers, criticising government plans to make students (or their families) pay university fees]

      • To put it bluntly: if plumbers (and other people; how the burden is distributed is a political question) don’t subsidize education, and the arts, and so on, then only people with money can benefit from them, and those people will also call the shots. That’s not a world in which I want to live.

      • And why should we assume that she would want this. Her daughter might be persuaded by the universities that she should study social studies and earn less than her mother, when she might be happier if she did hairdressing (check out the happiness research on that). Despite all our “best efforts” to encourage lower incomes into higher education it is still an effective subsidy of the middle classes.

      • Despite all our “best efforts” to encourage lower incomes into higher education it is still an effective subsidy of the middle classes.

        And why is that? The only way to get more involvement from the lower classes is to get rid of fees. Why are you so opposed to this?

      • telescoper Says:

        Well, in the UK no meaningful efforts have been made to encourage lower incomes into higher education. In fact, all efforts have gone in the opposite direction.

      • Are you sure that fees are the biggest obstacle to access for lower income groups? What about the quality of the second level learning experience they have? Family support (grinds etc.)? Cost of accommodation (for culchies)? C’mon guys, we’re academics – we need evidence to underpin policy? (could we be evidence that higher education does not promote critical thinking?) By the way, are lower-income not all entitled to grants to cover fees and living costs? Is that working?

      • telescoper Says:

        In the UK (which is what the post was about) there are *no* grants to cover fees and living costs. That would have made it impossible for me to go to University had it applied 30-odd years ago.

      • The hypothesis that getting rid of fees will impact significantly on the participation of poorer students in higher education is not supported by the evidence that participation has not satisfactorily increased in Ireland where they do have free fees (and some living costs).

      • “The hypothesis that getting rid of fees will impact significantly on the participation of poorer students in higher education is not supported by the evidence that participation has not satisfactorily increased in Ireland where they do have free fees (and some living costs).”

        Do you have a reference for that?

      • Are you suggesting it’s not true? Do you think that participation in higher education among lower socioeconomic groups is satisfactory?

      • “Are you suggesting it’s not true? Do you think that participation in higher education among lower socioeconomic groups is satisfactory?”

        How much is satisfactory, how much is desirable, etc is a different question. I am suggesting that lower fees encourage participation by those with less money. I base this conclusion on having lived in countries with high fees and in countries with low or no fees and see who had higher education (including myself in a very-low-fee country) and who didn’t (including many who could have benefitted much more from it than the fat cats who had their way paid). What are your numbers for Ireland based on?

      • We are constantly being asked in higher education to do something to increase participation from lower socio-economic groups. In general I trust those who are asking, that current numbers are unsatisfactory. Do I need to go and find the statistics to back their claims? We both seem to be in agreement that they are unsatisfactory. This argument is about the impact of cost on participation. You might be correct to suggest that in countries that provide less support, the participation rate is even lower, but that would only prove that there is a limit to the impact of removing costs on participation. Something further may be required. Meanwhile, the heavy subsidy of those who do attend is mostly going towards the middle classes.

    • Of course, plumbers and astrophysics and PhDs and (in other posts here) Einstein reminded me of Einstein the plumber, so I dug this out of the archives (it’s very relevant today in other ways as well):

      https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2017/einstein-mccarthyism

      • telescoper Says:

        I’ve never discussed this with a plumber but I had an electrician in a few weeks ago and he was fascinated by dark matter etc. I don’t think he minded the tiny amount of his taxes that go on research that.

      • I love astrophysics too. As well as philosophy, psychology, economics and music. Luckily I don’t need a university to indulge myself. I am thankful for the research but I’m unsure how much we actually need (particularly on the post-modern philosophy).

  5. Nice and informative post.

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