Another look at fees

As the debate in Ireland on tuition fees rumbles on, with no clear sense of where and how it might end, and with the somewhat surreal handling of the student registration charge thrown in, it might be of interest to look at an analysis of the UK situation recently published by the think tank Policy Exchange. It may be worth pointing out where this organisation sits in the British political spectrum. Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank and is said to be close to David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party. It speaks from within the Conservative political tradition, but often adopts a reform-minded tone.

It has now published a discussion paper entitled More Fees Please? The future of university fees for undergraduate students, written by Anna Fazackerley and Julian Chant. They point out some of the consequences of the under-funding of universities by the state over recent years, and consider ways in which that can be redressed before it is too late. They come to the conclusion that tuition fees are a necessary ingredient of university funding, they suggest that the cap on fees should not be lifted immediately (as has been proposed), but they argue that there should be fee-based competition between institutions rather than all adopting the maximum allowed fee as the standard across the sector. They also express strong support for the principle that university admissions should always be ‘needs-blind’, and that universities need to be in a position to guarantee this.

The views of Policy Exchange may not be for everyone, but this is an intelligent and lucid contribution to the discussion, in particular because it draws attention to the somewhat chaotic debate on university funding and the blind eye that is being turned to the potentially disastrous educational and infrastructure consequences that will follow if institutions are not put in a position to improve their financial outlook. All of this is true in Ireland also. We must accept that the state of the public finances here will for the foreseeable future rule out state-only funding to bring our universities to an internationally competitive level. But we must also persuade our stakeholders that we will be unable to deliver a high standard education sector that can compare with other developed countries unless funding is fundamentally changed. What we should not do is to agree to muddle through for the next generation, eventually leaving behind a higher education sector that once had ambitions but then returned to mediocrity. If we allow that to happen, we will kill off knowledge-intensive foreign direct investment and technology assisted start-ups, we will have a national workforce lacking higher skills, and we will allow the emigration of our brightest and best to gather pace again. We must not go there.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

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