Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Balancing sustainability and fairness in higher education (The Browne Report)

Published today, the Browne Report looking into university reforms delivered, as widely expected, the recommendation that tuition fees be vastly increased. The verdict is that the government would underwrite university fees of £6,000 a year. More importantly, the Browne review concludes that universities could charge more if they so wished, seeking to introduce a cap at £12,000 per year. Browne branded the document as 'securing a sustainable future' for higher education. In terms of money, this may be true, but what does it mean for the students?

Business Secretary and senior Liberal Democrat Vince Cable has accepted the plans, an obvious dichotomy but one not strictly relevant to this piece. He describes the previous party opposition to any rise in fees as 'no longer feasible'. This is to say either this country's finances have taken a drastic turn for the worse in the five months since the election, or by 'no longer feasible' he means it's no longer a stance the party can take while in coalition with the Tories, likely the latter. It would appear that in government the likes of Cable are having to perform a drastic U-turn from their previous position as being reasonably respected politicians.

Cable defended the plans as 'fair and progressive'. His line of argument would be that loan repayments starting at £21,000pa earnings eases the pressure on the less well off. But those who benefit most from higher education are penalised. Surely the progressive element should be creating a level-playing field for opportunity, not charging relative to success.

A progressive attitude towards university funding would be to help children from low income families into higher education in the first place, yet the support system for these children is not set to change, and they will still be paying more, more than double in many cases it would seem, in tuition just like everyone else. This isn't progressive. It hurts the less well off more than any other target group for higher education.

What's more is that it doesn't solve one of the main problems in higher education right now, that we have arguably too many graduates, and too many people applying. The argument would be that greatly increasing fees would heighten the privilege of going to university, and give it to those who want and need higher education. A problem is that many are seen to be 'dossing around', and taking advantage of the welfare system of tuition to have three years of state-funded partying. But if, under the proposed system, a student doesn't start paying for their tuition until they are earning £21,000pa, this is only going to further encourage university attendance for these reasons and for 'the sake of it'. Low-ambition, low-earning university graduates can basically earn themselves a three year free-pass to university and have a similar job to what they may otherwise have earned themselves without having gone to university. How's that for reducing the deficit?

But we will see a drop in university applications under these proposals, only it will be those who can't afford the tuition who won't apply. This isn't fair, and it isn't the group who should be targeted. 'We're all in this together', but it would seem, just like with so many other coalition proposals cloaked in the facade of 'progressive politics', that some of us are more 'in it together' than others. Rich families will still have access to education, and students from poorer ones will miss out. The banks may be balanced, but where does the student benefit in all this? And at what point are their interests and needs accounted for?

These are the numbers and statistics of the report, with the recommendation that fees shoot up, and the government trying to defends its allegedly 'progressive' elements. But after clearly stating the aims and needs to give university a prestigious appeal, needed not by everyone but those who will value it, the report then proceeds with a list of facts stating why graduates are better people than non-graduates (c.f. pp. 14-15). This leads to a somewhat cynical conclusion that the reforms aren't necessarily for the greater good of higher education, but just about charging more to those who want it.

There is even a colourful, user-friendly box in the report to describe, in basic terms, what it means for various players, such as the students themselves and their families. Under the 'Government' section, the main point is 'less involved, less regulation'. This, coupled with the impetus on student funding and a free-market system of education, shows the changes are a dogmatic assault on the state, rather than giving students the best possible education in the current climate.

With fees set to increase and cuts widely expected in the Budget Review, higher education, like any other sector, will be hit, and it must respond accordingly. If increasing fees and opening up the markets for universities is not the answer, what is?

As mentioned, it would not appear that the proposals rectify the problem of over-applications and minimal participation in often needless subjects. I believe better careers advice is needed, so that students are discouraged from entering university for either nothing more than three years of fun, or as a way of procrastinating over their future. As far as the deficit goes, there should be lower admissions to reflect lower public funding, a basic solution which the Browne report does not seem to point to. This way, admittance into university isn't based on whether the student can pay, but rather if they can achieve. Those not admitted would typically be those with lower grades, and in less of a position to benefit from higher education – also typically those more likely to exploit the current meaning of 'affordable university lifestyle'.

The move to the top-up fees system was a good thing (though let's not forget that even this was a broken government promise). There are record numbers of students from state schools in higher education. This is something we should be proud of, not actively seeking to reform. While the government-endorsed proposals place funding and stability in higher education as the priority, the future of the would-be student is far less sustainable.