My thoughts on the proposed student fees…

This blog post originated from a Twitter conversation that I had with a colleague @oddhack following my tweet “After consideration, I am starting to come around to the proposed increase in student fees. *she says bracing herself for some flak*”

I suppose there are three different questions that need to be considered:

  1. Is there any way that HE could be funded without students having to pay fees?
  2. Should HE be funded without student fees?
  3. If fees are the only option then what is the fairest way of paying for this?

I don’t know the answer to question 1. There obviously is a finite pot of money so should it be spend on defence or health or other forms of education (i.e. pre-school, primary school – which the coalition is arguing for). Saying that, I’m sure that millions is spent on things I wouldn’t agree with such as men’s World Cup football bids.

The more important question then is question 2. This is much more complex. People that haven’t gone to University argue that they shouldn’t have to fund those who do but this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. I think the real problem is that those making the decision to increase fees had the advantage of free University (my PhD supervisor said that he had enough money from his student grant to go travelling every summer during his degree!). For a coalition who’s mantra is ‘fairness’ this seems the opposite. I wonder how much it would actually cost to implement the old grant system with numbers rising to 40+% of the population. The question is whether the good resulting from making HE free is worth the investment (and the sacrifice of other things). The criticism I suppose is that it is intellectual elitism as those who have the intellectual skills/abilities/motivation will be given an additional push to help them secure a better job whereas those who do not have the skills/ability/motivation will be left at a disadvantage. Ought we to fund vocational training in the same way? I think one of the main problems at the moment is that the Government (and wider society) isn’t clear as to what Universities are – they are not supposed to be vocational training centres (which I fear they are turning into – many of my students seems surprised that they are expected to both read and think!) and their value can’t be measured in purely economic returns.

Which brings us to 3. I think the mistake that the coalition has made here is in the language they have chosen to use. Why didn’t they just call it a graduate tax as that is essentially what it is. Saying that they are increasing fees has misled so many students into thinking that they still have to find the money up front which just isn’t true. If they had just said that all new graduates would be paying 2% of their income once they were earning £21,000 in order to fund other students, then I expect the reaction wouldn’t have been so fierce. I’m also not convinced of the argument that it will put off students going to University once they realise that they don’t have to pay anything up front. This was the fear of raising fees to £3000 and it hasn’t had any effect whatsoever. It might actually mean more older people coming to University because if you’re already 55 or 60 then you might think it is an opportunity for a free degree as there’s little chance you’ll be earning over the threshold once you complete. It might also have the same effect on part time students who will get the same opportunities as full time students which they haven’t had previously.

These questions then really come down to how much should we (both from a collective and individual point of view) value higher (and I also think further and vocational) education? Do we say as a society that we value it so much that we will give everyone the opportunity to participate in it free at the point of need? Or do we say that if individuals value it then they ought to pay for it (by being provided with a loan or greater tax burden)? I would argue the former, simply because it gives the signal that society values well educated and trained individuals. And if David Cameron really wants to measure well-being then being appreciated for what you can offer is a great part of this.