Archive for Sally Hunt

Future Fees

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on September 21, 2009 by telescoper

There’s been a lot of news coverage today arising from a new report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which argues that students should in future pay higher tuition fees to go to British universities. As you can probably imagine this has generated quite a lot of comment, but since some of the remarks I’ve heard are based on misunderstandings I thought I’d give my angle on  is happening and what the implications are.

For a start, the tuition fees paid by students at present are not the sole (or even the largest part) of the income paid to universities for undergraduate education. The way the funding councils work is to pay each university directly an amount for teaching each student (called the recurrent grant). This amount depends on the course. There is a basic level (which for 2009/10 is £3,947), but this is increased for subjects which require experimental work. The result is that there are four funding bands: A (which is clinical medicine, the most expensive); B (which includes science subjects such as physics); C (which includes subjects with laboratory or fieldwork element); and D (everything else).

The level of funding for an individual student in each price band in 2009/10 is

  • band A – £15,788
  • band B – £6,710
  • band C – £5,131
  • band D – £3,947

Physics (and Astronomy) is in band B, so the department receives £6,710 directly from the government for each student doing a course in these subjects.

Brought in in 2006, the “top-up” fee (currently £3225) is in addition to this, although it does not have to be paid immediately by the students. They can borrow the money at an advantageous interest rate and only have to pay it back when  they have left their University and started to earn money at a level sufficient to trigger the repayment. Here in Wales the situation is a little bit more complicated because the students don’t pay the full “top-up” fee payable in England. Instead they pay a lower rate (currently £1285) and the Welsh Assembly Government makes good the shortfall to the University. In Scotland there are no tuition fees payable by the students.

Anyway, for Physics at least, the tuition fee is only about one-third the total income for each student. It looks, then, like the government does actually pay the lion’s share of the cost of higher education, especially in science and medicine. However, it is worth remarking that if the UK devoted the same share of its GDP as the OECD mean (1.1%) then students would not have to pay top-up fees at all in order to fund the entire University system at an adequate level. Clearly a political decision was made that funding Trident, ID cards,  and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a much better use for taxpayers’ money than providing universal free higher education.

I don’t actually object to the principle that students should make a contribution to the cost of their university education but I think the fairest way to do that is via the taxation system. There are many problems with the system we have, which is an attempt at a British compromise that actually gives us the worst of all worlds. The Labour party was scared to allow fees to be set too high for fear of alienating its traditionalists by discouraging those from poorer background from going to university. On the other hand, it didn’t want to set them too low because that wouldn’t bring in sufficient extra money. In the end they settled at an in-between level, i.e. one that achieved very little and alienated people anyway.

For a start the level of top-up income is not really high enough to pay for the investment that is needed. Many leading universities are in fact making redundancies because the additional revenue  realised by top-up fees was not enough to meet the rising pay bill resulting from a generous salary settlement last year. Moreover, the idea that top-up fees would satisfy the right-wingers by introducing some kind of “market” was a complete delusion. All universities (big and small, old and new, good and less good) charged the same level of fee.

I went to university in the 1980s when the system was very different. There were no top-up fees and, because I wasn’t from a wealthy family, I received a full maintenance grant to cover the cost of living and studying during the three years of my degree. That’s the big difference nowadays: nobody gets a full maintenance grant. Universities do use some of their tuition fee money to provide contributions to poorer students but they generally amount to a few thousand pounds a year. That’s not enough to live on, so most students either rely on their parents to help them or have to work during term-time. I never had to do either of those.

Anyway the CBI report says that the level of tuition fees should increase to around £5000, the student loan interest rate should increase and there should be fewer bursaries. Even within its own terms I don’t think this makes much sense. In fact, I could understand them better if they had argued to remove the cap altogether. The posh places – Oxbridge and perhaps a few others – which can probably fill their places  charging whatever they like could actually afford a fairly generous bursary scheme that might encourage a few talented working class kinds to go there to ease these institutions’ consciences.  Other universities would be forced to set their own fee levels according to the demands of income and recruitment.  The system would be increasingly differentiated by cost and quality, but students from poorer backgrounds would  be excluded to an even greater extent than they are now. I wouldn’t like a university system built along those lines but it seems to me that it would suit the mentality of the CBI.

The big issue about today’s debate, however, is that neither the Labour nor the Conservative Party is going to say what they’re going to do about university funding until after the general election next year. Certainly  neither of them will say whether the fee will go up to £5000. For once, I agree with Sally Hunt  (general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union) who has urged them both to come clean. Keeping silent about this when other public sector cuts are clearly on the table is both spineless and dishonest. Just what you’d expect from politicians, in fact.

For what it’s worth I predict that after the next election higher education will suffer a classic double-whammy. Whichever party takes power, the resulting government will be forced to make large-scale cuts in public spending to keep the country’s finances under control. I think what they’ll do is cut the unit of resource (probably by a large amount, say 25%) at the same time as increasing the tuition fee element. They can then claim that University funding has been protected while at the same time cutting the cost of the system to the public purse. Students will end up paying more for less. But, hey, at least it will keep the bankers happy and that’s what we’re here for after all.