This month Lord Browne began a review into student university fees with the focus on how to ensure “all students with the ability and motivation go to university.” The problem is universities are desperate for more funding, and as the recession is forcing government to cut back spending this extra funding would have to come from students. Without extra funding the standard of research intensive universities, such as Oxford, will decline most.
This might not actually be a bad thing, as it would improve universities in the middle and bottom of the league tables. After all it is not the expensive tutorial system or the extensive research that makes Oxford or other Russell group universities better, but the students. So long as there is the perception amongst students that there are better universities students will self-select into them. Without this perception top students would spread throughout the higher education system improving universities at the bottom, and, the argument goes, this will help other students.
A BBC survey suggested universities would be happy to see tuition fees increase up to £20,000 and want to set their own fees, prompting fears universities are becoming elitist. This flies in the face of the socialist mantra that education is a right, which underlies the Liberal Democrat’s commitment to scrap tuition fees and Labour’s target that 50% of students should attend university.
The argument that increasing tuition fees forces the poorest students out of higher education making universities elitist doesn’t stand up, however. As top-up fees are paid back after the degree, the logic isn’t whether the fee is affordable now, but whether the course is value for money and economically viable. Even students from the poorest families shouldn’t be deterred from applying for medicine when the course costs over £40,000 because job prospects are good. The real victim of higher tuition fees will be media studies et al.
This may mean fewer students from poor backgrounds attend university, but this is a reflection of the state education sector underachieving. When top universities accept disproportionate numbers of privately educated students they expose the different standards in private and state education. For a government whose motto was “education, education, education” this is very disappointing. For Labour to reach its 50% target it either had to encourage private education or make university courses easier to qualify for, and obviously it chose the latter.
Labour did this in two ways. Firstly it introduced degrees that were academically soft with low entry requirements. Secondly Labour inflated grades by creating lots of different exam boards that needed to compete for schools to secure funding. The ‘results culture’ creates enough pressure on schools that they choose boards offering the easiest exams, which leads to grade inflation.
In other words, Labour has only managed to increase participation by spending billions of pounds on universities, which allows them to charge low fees; but now the budget is at breaking point Labour has to choose between maintaining university standards and its 50% target. Letting tuition fees rise effectively closes economically unviable courses, but the alternative is to deny the extra funds universities say they need. It’s a tough choice – but those who say there is a duty to widen inclusion in universities mistake the right to education for the right to go to university. If education is a right students have been violated before they reach university.
It is because higher education is such a difficult issue that Browne’s review won’t be published until after the election. But if Lord Browne agrees with universities and allows something close to a free-for-all in terms of tuition fees, where universities can charge anything but where students at the same university on different courses pay the same fee, we will see a return to a two-tier system. One group of universities will offer tough, expensive courses to better students, and another group will offer less demanding courses with less good job prospects but at affordable prices. It will be an informal return to the polytechnics Labour scrapped.