David Willetts: Student burdens and imaginative thinking

Universities are topping the news agenda again this morning. Lucky us.

Or maybe not.

David Willetts, the universities minister, has said that students should see tuition fees “as an obligation to pay higher income tax”.

Oh dear. Then again, we shouldn’t be such a “burden on the taxpayer”, should we?

photo by bisgovuk

photo by bisgovuk

Education, like health, like defense, like transport…like most things, is a taxpayer burden. We know taxes must be paid, even if we don’t like it, but we want them to be reasonable and to work.

The welcome expansion of higher education means we cannot expect all funding to come from the public purse. The system has changed too much to expect that.

But one thing about HE hasn’t changed over the years. That is the amount universities help the country achieve through both teaching and research. Based on this alone, public funding must still be the main way to help fund the system. It is reasonable to think that graduates should also contribute toward the future of higher education. But how much?

Willetts asks what can be done to ensure students can get more out of higher education. He asks for clarification on what we are getting in return for our investment:

“The system doesn’t contain strong incentives for universities to focus on teaching and the student experience, as opposed to research.”

This is a fair point in itself. Graduate repayments take 9% of your earnings above ¬£15,000. This is too much of an ‘income tax’ when there is no specific and identified benefit.

One way of tackling the funding issue and that of student benefit is, according to Willetts, to look at systems of education provided by London University and Open University, providing more affordable teaching in HE. Methods like distance learning and local learning would certainly benefit some, but there’s already a lot of this going on, especially within further education. HE in FE is not a new concept. The format is welcome and useful, but it isn’t enough to transform the education system, especially if sufficient funding from the right sources is not forthcoming.

If the coalition government – whether through Vince Cable or collectively – is keen on reducing university places in coming years, a lot needs to change before it can work for students in general. Access needs to be guaranteed to all those who would benefit from HE. Additionally, those students need to be easily identified and given the help to understand what HE can do for them.

I’m not saying it’s an easy task, far from it. We need to tackle widening access as a priority before we start reducing the number of available spaces at universities. The system is already failing students with good grades who cannot get in to university. Widening participation doesn’t stand a chance when even already engaged and achieving students are unable to fulfil their potential.

I noticed that Newcastle University has been taking on local applicants with lower A-level grades for the past 10 years. Success stories such as Newcastle’s highlight mechanisms in place that allow access to all who would benefit. Even those who don’t achieve so well earlier on in life can go into HE and improve their chances considerably.

David Blanchflower suggests we look to Dartmouth College in the US for a way to combine widening participation with successful funding models. This would mean lifting the cap on tuition fees. But would that matter if half the students would receive scholarships and financial aid when it is needed? Would all this financial aid be possible anyway? I’m not sure, but the method is worth exploring in a time of big changes.

Graduates in the US are also far more likely to donate to their place of study. In the UK, graduate donations are nothing like as forthcoming, although they seem to be rising.

It is expected that Lord Browne’s review into higher education funding will list higher fees amongst its recommendations. Time will tell what comes out, but it seems we are being readied for this outcome. Willetts has said that people need to see the difference between a credit card debt and a graduate debt that is more akin to paying higher income tax.

I know the difference and it doesn’t have me sighing with relief.

If the fees cap is lifted – or removed altogether – the burden on the government and on students will increase hugely. Higher fees still won’t benefit the government due to the drain that loans have on the economy in the first place.

Willetts has, therefore, set out the need to “think much more imaginatively” regarding fees. He suggests that graduates may have to pay more for their education in the future, but they will be more accepting if they recognise the worth. That worth, he argues, can only come about through an improved teaching focus.

As far as students are concerned, imaginative thinking will certainly need to go beyond this.


  1. You say that, ‘It is reasonable to think that graduates should also contribute toward the future of higher education.’ But why?

    Would it be reasonable to ask A level students to pay something towards their education?

    Would it be reasonable to ask primary school children to pay for their education?

    Everybody pays for it eventually through taxation. And a progressive taxation system would tax those who earn more. Higher salaries, we are told, is a consequence of staying in education longer and getting more qualifications.

    There is no consistency in charging students for HE and not primary and secondary education. The argument that being educated to degree level gives you competitive advantage in the job market and is therefore worth shelling out for doesn’t work on a number of levels. The first of which is that surely ALL education gives you a competitive advantage. People who have A levels have a competitive advantage over those that only have GCSEs. Secondly, if government is confident that a degree will secure you a larger salary then it should be happy to put students through HE safe in the knowledge that it will reap the rewards in tax returns. (But then again, maybe government doesn’t believe that education will make us all commensurably richer, in which case…)

    I don’t think we have to accept the argument that students have to pay fees for a degree, for the real danger is that we turn education into a mere commodity and universities into a sector of the ‘education industry’ (we’re close to this already) and that would be disastrous.

    1. Primary school children and (most) A level students are not yet adults. Once they pay taxes, they are paying for others to go through that education.

      But university is not a requirement, nor is it guaranteed to everyone. Also, those who attend uni are adults. We’re no longer talking about a child’s education. As you say, everyone pays for their childhood education eventually.

      So I do think it is reasonable for graduates to contribute toward the future of HE. However, the following applies to that statement: I don’t know how much would be ‘reasonable’ (naturally, it’s subjective); I would expect that money to go primarily toward teaching, widening participation and elements that directly benefit undergraduates; I would rather see — and am ever hopeful for — a better method of contribution than through tuition fees.

      Your suggestion of a progressive tax system is one that I see as a possible way forward and one reasonable way for graduates to contribute. This progressive system of tax is different to the one funding primary school and A-level education, so it’s still a payment of sorts. This is what I mean when I say it’s reasonable for graduates to contribute. I wasn’t solely referring to the current system of fees. I have long been calling for the discussion to move beyond that.

  2. Hi Martin,
    I accept that a place at university is not guaranteed nor is it a requirement (although jobs that previously required few qualifications now insist on a degree) but I don’t think we can make the argument that students are adults therefore they should pay towards their higher education. Fees have made students increasingly dependent on parents and guardians, in effect infantilising them. Studentdom as some sort of right of passage into adulthood has been replaced by kids forced to live at home with mum and dad, while attending the closest university.

    But there is a perfectly reasonable way in which people can pay for their higher education. Tax. The more you earn, the more you pay. This, of course, goes also for those higher earners who perhaps didn’t go to university. But I suspect that for ideological reasons the government is committed to low-taxation and therefore prefers to make the ‘consumers’ of HE pay, even if they have to get themselves into the most extraordinary debt in the process.

    The tax option would be an indication by government that it really believes its own rhetoric: that being educated to degree level increases an individual’s income.

    If, on the other hand, the government increases fees and saddles student-consumers with greater debt, then I think that’s a sign that they are happy for the great higher education swindle to continue.

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