Wednesday, 15 December 2010

University fees and a realistic debate.

Slugger carried an excellent blogpost yesterday by Michael Shilliday, who broke down the consequences of student debt associated to a hike in fees.  It's a bit of an eye-opener and Michael's argument that scare-mongering over the issue could have the greatest effect on take-up of university places is persuasive.  In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I also argued for a more realistic debate on education cuts and fees.  The final article was edited down a little, so I include a fuller version below the fold:

It’s difficult not to sympathise with students, soon to face debts of up to £30,000 for a three year university course.  It would be callous if generations of parents and graduates, who enjoyed comfortable maintenance grants, or paid relatively low tuition fees, felt otherwise.
That sympathy is certainly being tested by scenes of youthful nihilism, which last week accompanied anti-fees demonstrations in London and Belfast.  The students’ arguments are undermined whenever a minority of protesters misbehave.
Whether it is an act of disrespect at the Cenotaph, or the ludicrous Troubles throwback of teenagers chanting ‘SS RUC’ at police in Belfast city centre, some young people need to do some serious growing up, before their case can be taken seriously.
Any legitimate demonstration can attract hangers-on.  ’Anarchists’ and others aren’t representative of the vast bulk of students, whose anxieties about the future of third level education in the UK are well-founded.  
Some protest organisers, though, are decidedly ambivalent in their condemnations of misbehaviour.  It has been a frequent refrain that while acts of vandalism are wrong, they are also ’understandable’.  The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, for instance, advocates ’direct action’, which even if it were non-violent, risks provoking trouble in response.   
Even the more moderate demonstrations prominently feature the chant ’Tory Scum’, which hardly helps foster a reasonable discussion.  There’s little doubt that the hysterical tenor of the protests is impeding a more fundamental debate about who has a right to third level education and how it should be funded.
A useful starting point is to acknowledge that ‘free education‘ is a misnomer.  Someone always has to pay the bill.   And if more people stay in education longer then the price tag will be higher.
The conundrum is whether society as a whole should pay for university education or whether students, who benefit from it, should foot the cost?  There is by no means a clear cut answer to this question. 
All the main parties at Westminster currently believe that students should pay for their time at university, as they reap its rewards later in life.  That solution is elegantly logical, but the counter-argument is that society benefits, both economically and culturally, from ensuring that its young people are highly educated.  
The proviso is that so many people now go to university, that the cost substantially outweighs the benefits.  Universities, for their part, are increasingly focussed on research, with the result that teaching is sometimes treated as an unwelcome intrusion on more important work, by staff.  
The student slogan, ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’, couldn’t be further from the truth.  The issue of university education is hugely complicated.  Whichever party was in government, there would be some unavoidable questions to face and controversial decisions to take.    
Should students pay for their education after they receive it, by servicing loans or paying a graduate tax?  Despite the stigma attached to debt, the two solutions have remarkably similar outcomes.  Either way most graduates pay for their degrees throughout their working lives.  
Alternatively society at large can pay the bills, including people who missed out on a university education.  That outcome wouldn’t be as unfair as it is often portrayed.  
We badly need potential doctors and dentists to see out their studies in order to provide us with the best healthcare.  We also need highly educated captains of industry to create employment and humanities’ graduates to cater for our cultural wellbeing.  
If society went down that route, though, the economic equation couldn’t be neglected.  The number of young people currently going on to do degrees would be unsustainable.  Inevitably, it entails a drastic rethink about whether university is really the most appropriate choice for between 40 and 50% of school-leavers.  
If the coalition government decided to pursue that policy, the charges of ’elitism’ would be just as shrill and insistent as the current outcry over fees. 
As students protest against education cuts and fee hikes, they should remember that ’to govern is to choose’.  In Northern Ireland the executive will make that choice, and it will be a tough one.


K D Tennent said...

A useful post. Another dimension to this is the University and Colleges Union, which has decided to stand alongside the NUS etc. on this issue without consulting its members, many of whom accept that fees have to go up. LSE, for instance, had noted for many years that teaching UK undergraduates is uneconomic because of the limited fees level, and the HEFCE subsidy was inadequate to cover the £6,000 or so spend per student head.

Its not just the volume of University education that has increased, but the expected quality of it, with spend per student now much higher than in the era of free university education because of the provision of new learning technology and better student facilities. Government has not also increased the number of universities dramatically, destroying high quality polytechnic and other specialist institutions in the process. The UCU now seeks to protect its members in these research-lite institutions, bringing itself into conflict with those of us in research active institutions, who understand the need to attract the highest level academic talent to the UK. Academic talent is the forgotten variable in all this - yet it is this that will generate the best research, and the best economic return. Its frustrating that academics are not valued in the UK, even among the young people who claim to want to attend university!

Anyway - I think we should all embrace the Browne Report as a great opportunity for UK higher education. High quality institutions will now have an incentive to recruit UK students once again, dramatically improving access to the best places for our young people. Access to vocational courses will improve too as private providers move in and bring the prices down, while the good parts of post-1992 institutions will perhaps merge into the research universities. There may be fewer universities and more part time provision, but the number of realistic opportunities for young people from the UK will improve. I can understand people having misgivings about the level of debt, but at the end of the day one has to be prepared to invest to get a return. If you go to the right institution, you'll have no problem getting a job to pay it off.

Mack said...

The big question is who pays how much for what.

A certain proportion of the costs of running a university are fixed. Sending more students to university will reduce those costs significantly when viewed on a per head basis. I.e. if you already have fees, sending more students to college should reduce fees, not increase them.

The other point that rarely gets made is that universities do much more than deliver courses to undergraduates - and it is unfair to burden undergraduates with those costs.

If society in general feels universities other functions are sufficiently beneficial they could pay for them through general taxation. Or more support could be given to the commercialisation of research, sponsorhip or other forms of income.

E.g. Unlike in the private sector, AFAIK if a researcher or lecturer is granted a patent (normally the application is funded by the college) then s/he owns and can commercialise it themselves. In the private sector, although you will be a named inventor, the company owns the patent an all royalties, licence incomes, commercialistion rights.