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.