The Future of Fees

By graduation, many students have amassed so much debt that they’re considering declaring independence as tiny third-world countries and applying for international aid. However, new NUS proposals could re-open the debate on fees and raise much-needed questions about the future of universities. Lucy Hayes looks at the proposals and the alternatives.

Just half a century ago, 10% of the UK population went to university, and now 40% do. For years, people have been gloomily warning of a time when there will be too many graduates. With projected figures of 40,000 debt-ridden and unemployed graduates at the end of 2009, perhaps that time has come.

It may be tempting to shout, “Burn the polys! Keep out the non-elite! And with the money we save, bring back the grant!” But we need to keep a little perspective. We have lower overall levels of tertiary education than France, Spain, Belgium and others, and for the percentage of 20 year olds currently in education, we’re pretty much average. So what’s all the fuss about?

Of course, many of those countries do not charge fees – at least not at the rate that we do – but have higher taxes instead. The original idea of top-up fees was that some universities would charge less than others, but at their current level almost all universities are charging the maximum rate. They could only ‘competitively price’ their courses if the fees were higher than the cost of educating a student. One view is that a removal of the cap on fees – a free market – would allow universities more autonomy. Poorer students could still study provided that the government increased the loans to cover the fees.

Dr Terence Kealey is Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, the UK’s only private university. He believes that all higher education should be privatised and not interfered with by the state. “We value teaching and learning as almost semi-divine icons [and] exist solely to give the students an impeccable experience.” The University of Buckingham has an incontestably good track record, coming top in student satisfaction surveys for four years running, and flying in the face of graduate unemployment figures – it topped the Times’ employability table, with 100% of graduates going on to work or further study (Nottingham University showed 93.3%). And, surprisingly, it costs the student no more than a normal university to attend – but the 9-term undergraduate degree is done over 2 years rather than 3.

Dr Kealey describes government target-setting as “absurd”, pointing out that “state schools are failing to produce students with the stem skills in maths and science”, leaving the private sector to fill the void. He believes that marketisation will increase the standard of universities through competition. But isn’t this a grimly elitist proposal in which all but a lucky few miss out completely on a quality education?

The NUS believes that there is another option. In August they released a radical blueprint, ‘Funding Our Futures’, outlining an alternative method of funding higher education without top-up fees, and definitely without the need to open up the sector as a free market. It proposes the abolition of up-front fees, a possibility now almost discounted by most politicians, and for them to be replaced with “a fair personal contribution system”. They strenuously emphasise this is not such a “blunt instrument” as a graduate tax, as it would take into account income over time and academic credits taken. Yet it is different from the current loan system as it would set the payment period (20 years from the end of your course) rather than the amount to pay in total. It is, essentially, a graduate tax under another name; nonetheless, a poll conducted by the Guardian showed an overwhelming majority of 77% supported this rather than up-front fees.

Graduates who “enjoy high incomes thereafter will make a more sustained, and ultimately greater contribution, because their incomes will continue to rise after they would have paid off their debt under the current system. Those people who leave higher education and have average incomes thereafter will make a similar total contribution as they do today, but spread over a greater period of time. Those who leave higher education and, for whatever reason, have only a very low income for the rest of their working lives, may pay nothing at all, and will have relatively little debt compared to today.” Theoretically this system would raise £7.5bn a year, where the current fees system raises £4.5bn (which would only rise to £6bn if the cap was raised to £5,000).

These proposals were quickly derided by certain bloggers as ‘Funding Our Failures’, as those who piss about at uni, graduate with a third then spend the rest of their life in a low-paid job will have to contribute nothing towards their years as a student. Perhaps we should stop people pissing about. Or perhaps we should stop assuming that people who fail in life are gleeful in doing so: for example the ‘benefit spongers’ on JSA who get the glamorous sum of around £3,500 a year; or the opportunistic asylum seekers who I’m sure laugh at us tax payers while relaxing in the luxury of the £1,800 a year they’re provided with on asylum support. Call me naïve but I’m fairly sure the average graduate would not deliberately get a low-paid job to avoid having to pay any fees.

The blueprint is an interesting, comprehensive and well-researched proposal. Aaron Porter, NUS vice-president, wrote in his blog that “it is the first time that NUS hasn’t just criticised, but we have come up with our own credible model.” While they do not pretend to have created a ‘perfect solution’, it will certainly re-energise the debate as to whether we should be paying fees at all.

Wes Streeting, NUS president, said, “We are challenging politicians to join us in debating this issue, rather than simply kicking it into the long grass and hoping that it will go away.” He also added that at present, each institution’s individual administration of bursary support is “not working. We need a national scheme, so that financial support is based on how much a student needs it, not where they happen to be studying.”
The House of Commons commissioned a Select Committee Report in July, which also stated that the current bursary arrangements need to be replaced with a national system. For example, a Nottingham undergraduate from a lower income background is entitled to an annual bursary of £1,050, which we’ll all agree is far better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Were I clever enough to have got into Oxford or Cambridge I would receive around £3,200. The premise being that the intensity of an Oxbridge course makes it impossible for an undergraduate there to have a part-time job, whereas many Nottingham students work for a little extra money without detriment to their degrees.

At some point, of course, we should pause to consider what we’re paying all this money for, in whatever way we settle on paying it. What do we actually want out of a degree?

It seems likely that in the future a degree will be a pre-requisite in the way that GCSEs and increasingly A-levels are now. Whether you believe this to be a good thing or not, it’s happening irreversibly already. We’re all here, at least in part, to increase our earning potential.

Bad news if you’re a male English undergraduate. Men studying English can expect to earn less than they would have done if they hadn’t gone to university. Maths, science or engineering based graduates earn twice what social science graduates could expect, and four times more than the average arts graduate. And yet the levels of humanities applications continue to be higher than science.

There is a huge demand for ‘stem skills’, yet only 13% of people at university are studying them. The government has tried to rectify the imbalance, announcing 10,000 more university places in England this autumn, mainly in maths, science, technology and engineering. These places were made available as demand for university places continues to rise, with 10% more applicants this year than last across the UK – about 50,000 people.

Over the past few decades the meaning of a degree has changed. Having a degree, as we’re so frequently told by careers advice posters, “is no longer enough”. Since the mid-1990s there has been a 44% rise in upper seconds awarded by British universities. The Commons Select Committee stated that the current system for safeguarding standards “is out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced”. It also noted a “defensive complacency” in the leadership of the sector and no appetite to explore key issues such as the increase in first and upper second class honours degrees in the past 15 years. “It is unacceptable to the Committee that Vice-Chancellors could not give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards.”

The lack of consistency across the higher education system rests on the reputation of universities. As your average undergraduate will smugly point out, a 2:1 from Nottingham Trent is hardly the same as a 2:1 from Nottingham University. However, getting the universities to agree to a national system is an entirely different kettle of fish. One Cambridge admissions tutor stated, “If university standards were to be nationalised, Oxford and Cambridge would go private, without a doubt.” Laughing, he added, “Unless, of course, they were in charge of the system!”

It does seem likely that a few universities would rather go private than undergo the same quality-assurance controls as are applied to schools. This would put us back to where we were half a century ago with university education as the preserve of the few – and mostly wealthy – and the rest going through mundane certificated job training.

However a genuine debate about standards would be a useful, interesting and necessary part of shaping the universities of the future. As we approach mass higher education, elitists cry that the degree is being devalued, as it is impossible that half the population are really intelligent enough to go to university. But if improvements need to be made, focusing on universities is missing the point. We should be looking earlier in the education system; educational disadvantages begin in primary school and are drastic by secondary. A fifth of Britain’s 11-year-olds can’t read well enough to cope with school. Statistically, they’re set for failure, as only 5% will catch up enough to get five worthwhile GCSEs. This indicates a much wider issue – how can you look at the education system in isolation from the society in which it functions?

Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Nottingham University, is one of the authors of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Nearly Always Do Better, which was released earlier this year to wide critical acclaim. The book studies how all aspects of a society, from education to health to crime, are affected by the levels of income equality; and it’s not only the poor who would benefit from increased equality, but the rich too. In The Spirit Level the European countries more equal than the UK (which is all of them, except Portugal) tended to do better in most aspects. They have happier, healthier populations who commit fewer crimes and are more trusting. To improve Britain’s education system we need to improve the equality of the people entering it. Poor children arrive at school with an average of 25 hours of one-to-one reading behind them. Middle-class children have had 1,700 hours, and their vocabulary is twice as large.

The government is soon to produce a review of top-up fees. We can hope that they take into consideration the NUS’ proposals in finding a fair and sustainable way to fund higher education. The higher taxes on the very rich would contribute towards creating a more equal society, which in turn would help improve society as a whole. Theoretically.

However in all likelihood David Cameron will be our next glorious leader, and the traditional Conservative emphasis on the freedom of the individual means a significant rise in taxes is unlikely. However recent proposals for significant changes to league tables show some promising ideas. Failing schools often push their students to take “easier” subjects such as media studies, thus raising their grades and their national ranking. The Conservatives propose to scrap this system and award different points for different subjects – thus a school with good grades in Maths would be measured as better than one with the same grades in General Studies. This would help make further and higher education more academic, putting the emphasis on places where it’s really needed in the school system and helping to meet the need for stem skills. It’s hard not to worry, though, that the ‘points system’ might measure challenging art subjects such as music or history as less worthy than their scientific counterparts. The Conservative’s aims for higher education are centred around a “massive expansion” in apprenticeships, with various measures to make it easier and more beneficial for companies to take on apprentices. Cameron’s emphasis on spending on alternate routes could imply a cut in spending for the universities – he has vowed not to raise fees, but closing a few of the newer universities would definitely free up a bob or two.

So then we return to the initial question of how much our country wants to invest in higher education. Even if not all graduates increase their earning capacity and the country’s output of material goods, does not higher education have some value in itself? Where would our civilization be without people who can write or at least appreciate literature, fine art or drama – without historians, philosophers and poets living in garrets? We need a balance, of course, but the politics of higher education often seems to overlook that learning has it’s own worth, and is in danger of taking us into a world where literature is worth no more than the paper it is printed on.

Lucy Hayes

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