Tuition Fees: Where we are, how we got here, and what’s at stake

Photo: Nali Sivathasan

On Thursday, parliament will vote on a crucial reform to higher education funding that will affect universities across England. Having cut 80 per cent from university teaching budgets, the government is now asking students to fill the void.

The new legislation proposes to double the base rate for tuition fees to £6,000 per year, and to treble the maximum rate universities can charge to £9,000 per year.

These proposals, if passed by parliamentary vote on Thursday, will come into effect in 2012. Current students, and those entering university in 2011, will not be affected.

In an article for the Evening Standard last week, David Cameron said the proposals were “vital to maintaining a world-class higher education system in this country.”

“It serves no one to have underfunded universities with fraying resources and fading reputations. It damages our economy and it damages the prospects of students,” he said.

No one would disagree. All parties in the debate, from students and lecturers to vice-chancellors and politicians, want to maintain the world-leading quality of English universities.

What divides opinion is whether or not a fee increase is really the only way the country can maintain universities of such high standards.

Ministers insist that it is, with the state of public finances meaning a public subsidy for universities is no longer possible. Teaching budgets must, like most other areas of spending, be cut in order to pay off the government’s infamous deficit.

A key source of anger amongst students and lecturers is the way this assumption has stifled any real possibility of alternatives in the government’s planning.

Weeks, in fact months or even years, before the tuition fee increase was announced on November 3, the government had already started budgeting for it.

They had a plan to fill the gap, provided in part by Lord Browne, the former head of BP, who under Labour had been appointed to produce a comprehensive review of university funding. The plan proposed was a significantly higher “student contribution”, i.e. increased tuition fees.

Then on October 15, an email leaked to the BBC revealed:

  • Government funding for university teaching budgets was not only to be cut, but to be wiped out. Cuts of £3.2bn, or 79 per cent, to teaching were revealed.
  • A further £1bn would be slashed from research grants.
  • Funding for teaching would focus on “priority areas”, i.e. those courses considered to have the best potential to fuel Britain’s economic growth. Collectively known as STEM, these priority areas consist of science, technology, economics and mathematics.

The government knew perfectly well that removing this much money would mean a virtual collapse of the English university system. Thus the government has been able to present the tuition fee increase as a fait accompli. Ministers tore a vast financial hole in the university system, and then said there was no choice but for students to fill it.

One can then understand why protesters were so angry when both Cameron and Clegg suggested they were the ones posing a threat to the future of universities through their scaremongering.

Meanwhile, university senior managements across the country seem to have surrendered to the government’s sleight of hand. Steve Smith, Vice Chancellor of Exeter University and head of Universities UK, said: “No vice chancellor likes the thought of a 76 per cent reduction in the funding of teaching at universities.

“We have spoken out against that repeatedly. The problem we have is that we think there is no alternative plan, or plan B.”

But Aaron Porter, President of the NUS, has slammed this notion. His alternative, also favoured by Ed Miliband and mooted by Vince Cable in the summer, is a graduate tax. Graduates would pay an extra tax, increasing with their earnings, so that those who have benefited most financially from their degree put the most back in.

The chief danger he sees in the government’s plan comes from the two different fee levels being proposed. He calls it “marketisation”. Only those courses that are already successful will be able to charge the maximum £9,000 fee, and thus get richer and even better, while those currently with lower reputations will get caught in a downward spiral of lower fees, less funding, poorer facilities, less applications and so on.

However, ministers consider these market ideals a strength rather than a weakness of the new system.

David Willetts, Universities Minister, said: “Under the new arrangements, more university funding will be in the hands of students. Their choices will actually shape higher education as institutions have to work harder to attract them, offering the knowledge and skills that students need to get ahead.”

Nick Couldry, a senior lecturer in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, has a very different interpretation of this idea of “choice”. He said: “Students may begin to choose a degree on the basis of the earning capacity a degree will give them.

“Only two types of student will be relaxed about their choice. Those with large parental resources behind them and those choosing degrees – maybe a leading finance or business degree – who may believe that such a degree will guarantee them large salaries in the city.

“If some universities are largely, for some institutions exclusively, driven by student fee income, and student’s decisions narrowly driven by calculations of future earnings, how easy will it be in ten years time to propose a new degree in philosophy, art history or a language not on the government’s list of strategically important languages. Will the result really be more choice?”

Nick Couldry – “The Death of the University”

East London Lines’ coverage from previous protests can be found here.

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