funding

A new cap or a new price?

The government today responded to the Browne review recommendations.  A few brief details on government proposals:

  • A rise in the tuition fee cap up to a possible £9,000 (including a lower cap of £6,000);
  • higher interest rates on loans, up to 3% above inflation;
  • students pay back once they earn above £21,000;
  • slightly higher maintenance grant for students from families earning below £25,000;
  • Introduction of £150m ‘National Scholarships Programme’;
  • greater loan support for part-time students.

For greater detail, Times Higher Education have put together the main detail in the proposals.  There will be a lot more discussion throughout the week across the media, that’s for sure.  Then there’s the small matter of a demo in London on November 10…

Wordle: David Willetts - 3 Nov 2010, response to Browne & HE proposals

Just after the majority of teaching funding was slashed by the government, universities are going to have to find a lot of money from elsewhere.  So it’s unlikely that institutions will want to charge less than £9,000 if possible.  As with many capping exercises of the past, expect to see the cap become the price. Chances are that £9,000 will become a standard figure, with £6,000 being charged by any universities that cannot work toward the extra agreements.  Whether or not you agree with a full marketisation of higher education in a cap-less system, it’s hard to see a variable rate up to £6,000 or £9,000 do more than push the standard price up across all institutions.

This situation is clearly one in which the financial burden will be placed on students.  Those in favour of these changes are keen to say that it is graduates, not students, who will pay back the debt.  These graduates are still the same individuals, regardless of what you call them.  Students don’t pay up front at the moment, so the government is not proposing any type of revolutionary change.

Today’s proposals appear to be more of an offsetting exercise in regard to government debts. People won’t be saddled with credit card or mortgage style debts, but neither are they faced with that under today’s system.

Graduates will likely pay back more over 30 years.  The lower debt we currently have, coupled with a cut off of 25 years, is not much different to a higher debt and a cut off of 30 years.  The only real difference is the amount of time many individuals spend paying money back.  Some call this a stealth tax.  Some say that NUS and other opponents to fee hikes are scaring potential students unnecessarily.

Yet these proposals will make an impact.  And alternative measures have been offered.  For example, NUS released a blueprint outlining a graduate tax long before the Browne review was announced.  That graduate tax was essentially ignored.  The type of graduate tax dismissed in the Browne report was a basic, pure graduate tax; not the one offered by NUS.

For all the discussion going on today and all the debate within government, today’s proposals are not all that different to what is currently on offer.  Yes, graduates won’t find themselves having to pay scary amounts every month once they’re earning over £21,000, but those payments will go on for much longer than they do today, because:

  1. The fees will be higher;
  2. The interest rate will be higher than inflation;
  3. The cut off before remaining debt is written off will go up from 25 years to 30 years.

Some complaints regarding the graduate tax offered by NUS suggested that many graduates would have to pay back more than they do now.

However, at a time when fees are set to potentially treble, that argument cannot work.  There are pros and cons to everything.  Despite mentioning NUS recommendations, I’m not suggesting any particular solution here.  My main issue is that people are not being listened to.

And while debate rolls on regarding the future of HE, it’s difficult for anyone to sensibly debate the issues because the goal posts keep being changed.  Is it any wonder so many people are angry at Liberal Democrat moves to support higher fees when every single Lib Dem MP signed the NUS pledge that they would not support those very proposals?

Situations change and decisions do need to be updated based on new developments.  However, much of the situation was known when those pledges were signed and many alternatives had been proposed, including by Lib Dems themselves.

With an almost total cut in government funding for university teaching, much higher fees will not provide universities with extra income.  Those fees will also, therefore, result in no change to the student experience.  The individual is set to pay more for the same and, quite possibly, more for less.

It is, therefore, no surprise that so many students, academics, parents, and other individuals are unhappy with what’s happening in higher education right now.

As things stand, I imagine there will be a considerable turn out in London on November 10.  Mario Creatura recently said:

“I’m concerned that the decision to protest has been built on a foundation of emotive language gleaned from activists and the headlines which were ultimately based on Browne’s recommendation rather than what the coalition has actually said.”

Now the coalition has spoken.  Creatura was worried that the London demo may protest too many issues and cover too much ground.  But I feel this shows the magnitude of what is happening.

The Conservatives have been fond of saying “We’re in this together”, so why can’t people covering all aspects of higher education say the same thing?  The issues may be plenty and cover a large proportion of HE, but that’s exactly the reason why solidarity is necessary more than ever.

Far from diluting the noise, a collective effort may be exactly what’s needed to point out why the situation must be taken more seriously and with greater focus on the bigger picture.

The government wants students to have more of a say in what’s important to them regarding higher education.  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s time to speak up.

Making student places available and how to fund them

Channel 4 News last night provided a debate on the number of students going in to higher education and whether more places should be provided to meet demand.

Many young people are finding it difficult to find a place at uni, despite outstanding grades.  Rejections may come down solely to a flawed personal statement, or some minor issue that’s become a major block.  In all this uncertainty, it’s clear that the current system of allocating places at university is not supporting all those who would benefit from higher education.

photo by id-iom

photo by id-iom

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities, was first to speak on the Channel 4 debate.  She said huge increase in applications forces the question of whether the economy needs this many graduates and, if so, how can we afford them?  Due to world competition, Piatt argued that quality should be maintained.  Why short change students by spreading a limited pot of money too thinly?

Piatt went on to say that the current system does not support greater numbers of students.  Rather than have everybody pay the same amount of money, Piatt said there should be variation, especially as some people earn much more than others.

Strangely, this last point reminded me of an argument for graduate tax, which the Russell Group opposes.  They would rather see the cap on fees raised, if not abolished altogether.

It’s no surprise that the Russell Group want higher fees. They would be able to charge much more, yet maintain a full quota of students.  If any set of universities can stay strong based on their history and prestige, it is this set.

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Professor Leslie Davies, vice chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said that HE currently caters for different purposes, needs and lifestyles. However, there needs to be further diversification to meet learner’s needs.  For instance, not all students want to move away from home for three years now.  A big shift is happening with better informed students looking more closely at career prospects.

Davies explained that employers are looking for a wide range of qualifications and skills from the workforce, with many companies recognising A-levels as a way in, as well as Diplomas and vocational routes.  A “one size fits all” approach is no longer helpful, so young people require better advice and guidance to suit their personal situation.

NUS President, Aaron Porter, warned of greater costs for the government unless more places were created for students.  The burden on jobseeker’s allowance with many people out of work could be huge, he argued, with the number of jobs drying up and fierce competition for apprenticeships.

In terms of debt, Porter disagreed with Piatt that degree costs should be variable based on course studied.  Some people choose to study law & economics and want to be a teacher.  Why should they be saddled with more debt if they go on to that totally different vocation?

Porter said that both individuals and the state will lose out if the state continues to set an artificial cap on places.  Students should be able to attend university if they wish and demonstrate the ability and grades.  Compared with OECD countries, the UK is slipping down the tables fast.  More people are entering higher education in other countries compared with here, which could severely limit the UK workforce.

photo by garlandcannon

photo by garlandcannon

How did the students see all this?  Also in the studio was a mix of young people either going to university this year or who had missed out on a place at uni despite good grades.

A selection of comments:

  • Students are a burden, but they are also the next workforce who need the right skills and training;
  • University may not be the only choice, but why stop people who DO want to attend and who have made the grade?
  • Looks like re-stratification. Fine if you can afford Cambridge, otherwise forced to do something else like get a diploma from a ‘random college’;
  • Graduate tax is a good idea. However, differential rates do pose a difficulty and it’s not easy to argue the best solution;
  • If you want to go to uni and have your mind set on it, you should have that right.  University is not the only way to kickstart a career.
  • Social perception needs changing before we can better engage public on benefits of HE.  Students are still seen as a lazy bunch who do precious little, but it’s a misconception;
  • Student debt is a growing issue for those looking at future options.  More potential students being turned off now there’s a greater chance of debt skyrocketing further.

The debate made clear that everyone agreed on certain points:

  1. University isn’t the only valid option available to further career prospects;
  2. Better advice and guidance is required to help people make better choices;
  3. Current numbers of students are not sustainable unless some form of change is introduced.

The third point is where much of the agreement breaks down.  The debate rests on where change should be made.  Should diversity naturally lower the number of people filing in to universities?  Should fees be raised and students/graduates shoulder the burden?  Should the artificial cap on places be lifted and funding be sourced from other savings?

I feel the first two points are crucial in assisting the change required in the third point.  Luckily, there is so much agreement on those two points.

Student numbers and funding provision are still the big issues for the government.  In the process, individual choices and the widening of opportunity falls deeper to the background.  What if the way forward was actually moving further away from view?  This is even more pertinent after Nick Clegg’s recent speech on social mobility:

“This is a complex and contested area of both research and policy. And action to improve social mobility will take many years to take effect. In policy terms, it is like turning the wheel on an oil tanker.

“Promoting social mobility is a long-term business. And it is precisely for that reason that it is vital to establish now, at the beginning of our time in office, that promoting social mobility is at the top of our social agenda.”

Social mobility involves more than money and affordability.  This is just the same for universities. Funding may be the problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s also the solution.