Principles of higher education finance: the Browne review

Perhaps one of the things that is different about the report (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (the Browne review) in England is that it has set out a series of principles which, the group recommends should inform decisions on funding. I say this because often when I have raised questions in this blog on student fees I have had the response that I should specify how high the fee would be and what the precise financial implications would be. I understand that no actual proposal could be implemented that does not contain such details, but they are very much secondary when set against the principles of higher education funding. So, whatever about the merits of Lord Browne’s proposals in detail, his group got the general approach to this right, to a greater extent than I have seen in any other such review.

So what principles does Lord Browne out forward? There are six in all, on pages 4-5 of the report:

1. ‘More investment should be available for higher education’. To those of us working in higher education, in whatever jurisdiction, this seems obvious enough, but it is hugely important that this should have been stated clearly in the report, as there are still influential people who believe that higher education can absorb further reductions in funding. One might add, for Ireland, that Irish universities already receive far less funding per student than British ones, even before any changes resulting from Browne may have kicked in.

2. ‘Student choice should be increased’. As a principle this also seems to be absolutely right, though there is merit in assessing what the implications might be, and how sustainable and stable the overall system would be in the wake of any changes.

3. ‘Everyone who has the potential should be able to benefit from higher education’. This, I believe, must be our absolute commitment, that nobody who has the ability and the qualifications to enter higher education should be turned away from it or discouraged from pursuing it, for any reason.

4. ‘No one should have to pay until they start to work’. This principle is new, in that it suggests that students should not pay anything for their tuition while they are doing their programme of study.

5. ‘When payments are made they should be affordable’. Here Browne recommends (with details) how payments should be calculated and levied, and how the amounts should be kept to an affordable level based on the graduate’s current income. It is a good principle, but with potential complications, as it raises the issue of what happens to those debts that will have to be written off, and how this will be handled in the system.

6. ‘Part time students should be treated the same as full-time students for the costs of learning’. This is a principle that we have, in Ireland, manifestly failed to apply, notwithstanding our apparent public commitment to lifelong learning.

Given some of the discussions we have had in Ireland, it is interesting that the group considered and dismissed the viability of a ‘graduate tax’ as the best way of funding higher education. I have never been persuaded by the concept of the graduate tax, so I welcome this particular conclusion.

What happens now will depend initially on the political process, and this will depend in particular on how the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party handle the matter. Both of them will almost certainly have difficult internal debates.

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3 Comments on “Principles of higher education finance: the Browne review”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Sophocles (496 – 406 BC), in Ajax:

    Nought from the Greeks towards me hath sped well.
    So now I find that ancient proverb true,
    Foes’ gifts are no gifts: profit bring they none.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    This possibly relates more to your earlier posts about universal benefits, but for a different take to yours and one that echoes a very strongly held perspective amongst many people in Britain, yesterday’s comment in the Guardian is worth a read.

  3. John Says:

    I think much of the media missed the significance of yesterday’s report (no offence to Chilean miners and deceased agony aunts).

    Assuming the report is implemented in full (and Cable said as much in the Commons yesterday), the future of higher education in the UK will henceforth be determined by market forces. There will genuinely be a market in higher education.

    Supply has been effectively deregulated: existing universities have been freed from enrolment caps and private operators are specifically invited to join the party.

    On the demand side: students will attach a price to quality, reputation and graduate prospects. The good will cost more (a lot more?) and the bad will presumably fold. The report sets out a mechanism for winding down institutions sidelined by the market and offloading what remains as a going concern.

    What pricing technique will universities use to set fees in the inaugural year? How quickly will a stable equilibrium emerge, or will there be large volatility in fees year-on-year?

    Will universities collude in revenue raising?

    How quickly will capital allocation (capacity) respond to price/enrolment signals?

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