Russell Group on HE fees and funding

The Russell Group has today released its first submission to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding.  Student leaders are outraged that the report suggests an increase in debt repayment rates, lower repayment thresholds for graduates, and a real interest rate on loans.

photo by a.drian

photo by a.drian

The report says:

“Increasing the rate of repayment will have an impact on the size of the contributions made by the lowest, as well as the highest earners.  However, it might be argued that the current repayment rate is generous, and that it might reasonably be increased without putting undue pressure on low earners.”

Professor Michael Arthur, Chair of the Russell Group, said on Radio 4 that they have taken the “big picture issue” and looked at many different ways of funding HE.

Sadly, many funding methods and savings mechanisms are largely dismissed in favour of increasing the burden on students/graduates.

I say ‘students/graduates’, because Michael Arthur also said that “It’s not the students who pay back…It’s the graduates when they’re earning over £15,000.”

Okay, so graduates pay back.  But they were students.  And it was necessary for them to be students and to receive loans in order to  become graduates.  I don’t personally feel it’s important to take the term ‘student’ subjectively here by suggesting the student doesn’t pay back.  The discussion is about individual people.  The individual pays back.

I’m sure the individual is more concerned with the amount they’re expected to repay, as opposed to the importance over being called a ‘student’ or a ‘graduate’.

Going back to the report, the Russell Group looks at the following funding improvements and opportunities:

  • income from efficiency savings;
  • income from private sources;
  • endowments and charitable donations;
  • business income;
  • international activity.

They conclude that these elements provide only limited help and are not significant enough on their own.  It appears that the only  feasible solution is from an increase in money from students/graduates.  By paying back earlier and/or at a higher rate of interest, HE funding would be greatly helped, they argue.

The report doesn’t go the whole hog by suggesting a higher fees cap, but as Times Higher Education explains:

“The paper suggests that there are only three ways to offset the projected deficit among Russell Group members: cutting staff numbers, raising fees for home undergraduates and increasing fees for students from outside the European Union.

“The document then goes on to explain how cutbacks and fee hikes for non-EU students would fail to remedy the situation.”

No alternative funding systems are discussed, such as the graduate tax proposed by NUS, or a Business Education Tax as proposed  by UCU.  What impact does the Russell Group feel these alternatives would have?  Do they believe the current system is the only feasible one?  If so, why has there been such chronic underfunding, as they report?

One important aspect of the Russell Group’s report is where it argues that academic attainment before the age of 18 is “the most important factor in whether a  student will go on to higher education”.  It has been suggested that “educational inequality begins at a very young age” and I do believe this is a major issue.

While the Russell Group highlights that many countries are investing more in HE, they also cite a recent CBI report that suggests funding will come under ‘severe pressure’ in coming years at the very time when universities will need to keep up their competitiveness.

Unfortunately, the CBI report recommends “increasing support for universities through making savings in the student support system and increasing private investment, both from businesses and students”.

At some point, something will give.  While governments in many other countries are investing in the future of their HE establishments, we  face tougher times through less funding.  Not only should we fight this, but also fight for a fairer funding system altogether.  As UCU reports, “we need more imaginative ways to raise the necessary funds” to support HE.

The Russell Group’s second submission to the funding review is released on Monday, so we’ll see where that takes us…