Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Tuition Fees Debacle

Today Sheffield, The College of Arts and University College Suffolk are the latest in a long list of universities to announce that they will charge £9K a year for undergraduates taking their courses, and I fully expect my institute to announce £9K by the end of the week (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=415618). This does not surprise me, so why does it surprise the government? When you take 80% of the funding away from universities they will either need to find that money elsewhere or shut courses. Of course both of these options are equally unpalatable for the government and particularly the Lib Dems. Finding money elsewhere means either dodgy deals with the private sector, with the possibility of universities losing their academic independence, and/or charging students more. There are several points which are raised in relation to fees.

Why not have different fees for different courses?
HEFCE will now only support STEM subjects. Sadly this will not be at the full economic cost required to run them. This means that fees for STEM subjects will need to rise as they can no longer be cross-subsidised by the universities from the HEFCE money given to non-STEM subjects. It seems likely that universities will charge £9K across the board so that they can make a 'profit' from non-STEM subjects in order to cross-subsidise the STEM subjects.

Why are HE colleges and post-92 institutes charging as much as the Russell Group?
This one is easy to answer. It is driven by market forces that the Tories fervently believe in. The government indicated that only in exception circumstances would >£6K be charged and it was prepared to sanction exceptional as meaning Oxbridge and a few other Russell group universities. What it should have realised was that if one institute charges the max then it's just a race to the top. Oxbridge's competitor institutes can't be seen to be charging less as they fervently believe that the product they offer is every bit as good as the one offered by Oxbridge. And indeed in some subjects (see the last RAE) it is, if not better! And as soon as that happens it trickles all the way down. If the government wanted universities to charge only £6K then that should have been the limit in the legislation. Ultimately, however, it is the former HE colleges and post-92 institutes which will suffer the most from the 80% HEFCE cuts and in order to maintain the income they need to operate they will charge the full £9K.

Widening access?
Anyone who thinks that charging more for a thing makes it more accessible to the masses is clearly deluded. If that was the case we would all be driving around in Ferrari's while dressed in Dolce and Gabbana! The government says that in order to charge the full £9K universities will have to prove they are widening access to lower income and minority groups. An admirable ideal, but sadly unenforceable as the watchdog charged with monitoring this has no bite and no legal powers to enforce fee levels if it feels the access conditions have not been met. The universities know this. The government does not.

Conclusion
The UK higher education sector will suffer death by a thousand cuts. Cuts to the HEFCE budget, cuts to the academic disciplines you can study, cuts to the number of universities in the UK and ultimately cuts in the number of graduates produced. A shame for the UK as there should of and could of have been another way....