A Northern Ireland view

As the fall-out from the UK government’s spending review and from the recommendations of the Browne review (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) continues, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, Professor Richard Barnett, has strongly attacked the shift from public funding to tuition fees.  Speaking on Tuesday of this week to a group of visiting Northern Ireland politicians, he said:

‘What these fees proposals are about is the privatisation of higher education. That is what a small self-appointed group of self-serving universities have been pushing for over a longer period, and they may now well be getting their way in England. They recruit largely from private schools and do little for widening access… These elitist universities don’t understand the widening access issues that we at the University of Ulster are passionate about. We at Ulster believe that all sections of society should benefit from higher education and not just those with deep pockets.’

It is clear that Professor Barnett feels strongly about this, and it is obviously easier for some universities than for others to manage the implications of rising tuition fees; but it is not clear that his comments are fair. Taxpayer support for wealthier sections in society is not a pre-condition for access programmes for disadvantaged students, as his statement appears to suggest. Targeted financial support for the disadvantaged is ultimately a better bet.

Northern Ireland’s position in all of this has yet to be determined by the Assembly in Stormont, and Professor Barnett’s rather strong language is presumably calculated to influence political thinking. There may also be a fear that some of the University of Ulster’s potential student recruits could, if fees were raised considerably, opt to study in the Republic. This may explain Professor Barnett’s suggestion that English ‘elitist universities’ forming a ‘self-appointed group’ are responsible for the idea that there should be student contributions to funding. Whether that is an objectively reasonable comment is another matter.

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18 Comments on “A Northern Ireland view”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The problem is that YOU are not putting a sensible method for non-privileged access and neither is anyone else at your level. So I see that if we continue we will end up with something like the two routes to health care we have in Ireland if left to the political establishment.
    If you take as being necessary that your future funding requires fees be paid at much higher levels it behoves you and your equals to come up with an honest method.

    • Vincent, I have previously suggested that those under a family income threshold of €75,000 should be exempted from fees altogether, and that one-thiord of all fee income that is received should be diverted to special funds to pay for access programmes and for supports form those in financial difficulties.

      • copernicus Says:

        When we talk about non-privileged access, we have to define clearly the parameters. If we mean access to those who are from what we call working class-lower income families, then the tuition fee does not prevent them attending the top universities in Britain as there is no upfront fee involved and maintenance is covered to a large extent. The only criterion then is their academic background, meeting the minimum entry requirements. If we mean widening the access to all those who want to go universities and cannot because they cannot meet the minimum entry requirement, it is a different story. No use at the university level to delve into why they are unable to meet the requirement, as that is for the individual families to address this to a very large extent with support from the society. The problem with the “ widening participation “ mantra is that it works like the American affirmative action with all its negative consequences.

        Professor Barnett’s position is stemmed from the fear that his university-a post-92 university will not be able to charge the full £7000 capped fee, as even students with minimum academic entry requirement which will be centrally fixed for student loan purposes would rightly feel that taking such large loans to go to U of Ulster not a Russell Group or Group1994 is a risk and hence move down South or go to Dutch universities for example. If Barnett, keeps the current £3290 fee, his expanded university will have to contract significantly. Also, the centrally fixed minimum entry requirements will hinder the post-92s’ hither to unhindered recruitment of weaker students from just about any where, running clearing for weeks. I am afraid, the post-92s have to be blamed for expanding too much calling themselves “global universities” . U of Ulster and RGU are ceratinly guilty of it. Their local ethos as Ulster polytechnic and RGIT have all but disappeared. RGU is a different institution today, scouring Indian sub-continent to bring truck loads of students just to feed its expansionist hunger. Scotland desperately need vocationally trained skilled people. It is not getting them from these post-92s.

        Now about the fee conundrum. Scotland cannot escape the “ no tuition fee” situation and “ no NHS prescription fee” situation without hurting itself. There is clear evidence now that even the £3290 fee have put more resources into Russell Group and other universities, and STEM courses in England where these universities are better resourced. The £7000 capped fee will double that resource for top English universities and there will be a drain of academics and best students from Scotland to these English universities which is already happening. The previous Labour govt left a bombed site, a very large gaping hole in the country finances and cuts and fee increases are inevitable. No one can argue with the fact that there is no upfront fee is involved even with this fee increase and students like my son take the loans and pay back when they are able to. The university education plan should start from the womb, if I want to put it starkly. Pensioners and lowly paid cannot foot the bill of university education for many, which incidentally are too many with and without minimum entry requirements.

        I would like to be in touch with you when you come to RGU. Hope you will start a new blog there. I once worked in RGIT and have interest in Scotland. Now I am a retired academic.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    He is not alone, Ferdinand. There are indeed many outwith the Russell Group who would share his views with regards to the impact of fees. when you move to Scotland you’ll find yourself holding a minority view amongst the populace there as well you know. It’s a shame to see every day how convinced you seem that you are right and that there are no practical, workable alternatives to fees. There are, and there are many who will continue to support them on the basis of pinciple and who similarly value universal rather than means tested benefits and having key aspects of our lives independent of ‘the market’.

    Anyway, I’m going offline as I travel over the next several days, but looking over the almost daily obsession you’ve developed blogging about fees, I can probably get the gist of the instalments I’ll miss. 😉 Likewise you can imagine my own broken record playing in the background, no doubt!

    Mind you will be sad to miss your and your regular commenters’ take on the latest tales of expenses, bonuses and past extravagance (of others) surfacing in the media at the moment.

    • Iain, I don’t know how you know what the Scottish population believe – I am not aware they have ever been asked! That said, I am quite willing to believe you are right, as you are almost certainly right about the Irish and English population. Nobody volunteers for additional pain if they can help it, and we know that the middle classes fight to retain privilege.

      You say there are ‘practical, workable alternatives’ – but here I must ask you to say what they are. The only one I have ever heard is more taxation, but that is neither practical nor workable for all sorts of reasons, not least because any additional revenues will without any doubt be diverted elsewhere, and because any party that promised to put up taxation to pay for higher education would get slaughtered at the polls: and that is because the same people who don’t want fees don’t want to pay for HE by any other route either.

      So if it’s not taxation, what is the ‘practical, workable’ solution. Just one would do me! I’m not in any way ideologically committed to fees, but I don’t see the alternative. Unless of course you believe that an asset-stripped under-funded system is a good alternative.

      Safe travels, though! And your comments are always welcome here…

      • copernicus Says:

        “I’m not in any way ideologically committed to fees, but I don’t see the alternative. Unless of course you believe that an asset-stripped under-funded system is a good alternative”

        I agree with you 100%. I lived and worked in Scotland for over 8 years, and know the Scottish psyche well. Whilst outside Scotland, Scots are great entrepreneurs and free marketeers, and believe in wealth creation by private enterprise. But I have been flabbergasted to see the Scots within Scotland adhering to un-achievable socialist utopia which even Castro does not believe in any more. Not surprsingly they cannot stomach tuition fee introduction in any manner. Whilst your “but I don’t see the alternative” comment may find resonance among fellow vice chancellors and senior university administrators, it will be a red rag to the ordinary Scot. They are, to put it harshly conditioned to the funding allocation by England, and have never attempted any method other than more Westminster govt handouts to improve the underfunded university system. Surprise, thinking about Adam Smith.
        You will be perceived as an adversary who is proposing”un-Scottish” solution to them!! This is weird but is true. On my part, what you say makes so much sense, and living in London and seeing the two great institutions (UCL and Imperial) flourishing with more and more diverse students as a result of tuition fee contribution, I will say Amen to your comment.

  3. Gary Barrett Says:

    You you point to any international examples where the introduction of tuition fees has led to an increase in the ratio of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds entering HE?

    • Gary, if you don’t mind my saying, that’s not the right question. Clearly the introduction of fees per se won’t have that effect (though the evidence from man y countries is that it doesn’t have a negative effect either). What has a positive effect is the availability of proper funding to recruit and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. When resources are scarce, you have to make a choice as to whether you want to spend them on the wealthier sections of the population or the disadvantaged. We seem to have decided the former, and I am suggesting we need to focus on the latter. We don’t have the money to do both. Having fees for those who can afford them gives us the resources to support the disadvantaged.

      • Vincent Says:

        Again you speak of what the money ‘FROM’ the state could do.
        Given that but a few months ago we had someone writing in the National Newspapers suggesting that the mature students be denied access. How then can you ever expect to have any reasonable programme for the non-privileged that has it’s origin from people that sent their sprogs to private schools.
        It is my belief that WHEN fees return if there is no access programmes within the Universities themselves -even if this means pre-first course to bring people up to speed- we will be left with a University system that will only have those from very wealthy backgrounds and in very small numbers.
        But with a further two or three levels below this. As with the IT’s, the Trades, on to FAS, only formalised into something semi-masonic in nature. This will destroy whatever thought might survive the existing system.
        In sum’, the State, or rather this one anyway does not give one hoot about those below an income of 75,000 and not one hell of a lot for those that do.

      • Gary Barrett Says:

        The reason I asked the question is the logic behind it, as it’s being used as an argument against the ‘free’ fees scheme – it didn’t have effect x so we should scrap it.

        The second part of the argument is that it’s regressive. Unsurprisingly we don’t hear the same argument against free primary and secondary education.

        A system of wealth redistribution already exists – taxation. Unfortunately the balance is incorrect.

        The effects of severe cutbacks on access (in areas like language assistants and book grants for pupils studying in pre-fabs at primary and secondary level) can’t be address be addressed by bursaries.

        If people are genuinely concerned about educational disadvantage, then the best way of combating it is by widening the tax base and making it more progressive in order to fund public services as a whole, including third level.

        Already if your father is a professional, count on getting about 90 points more than if your father is a manual worker. If your father is “other white collar” count on getting about 50 points more.

        The last two years should provide clear evidence of the foolishness of the tax base. The obvious argument against this is that it would lead to ‘a loss of competitiveness’.

        A brief look at the global competitiveness tables will show that higher taxation economies, such as those in Scandinavia, are deemed to be more competitive than Ireland. Taxation is not the sole measure of competitiveness.

        If the business sector wants a permanent pool of employable graduates, they should contribute more to the cost of education. The UCUs preferred option in England in the form of a Business Education tax.

        The Celtic tiger saw a major shift in Irish national income from earnings to profits. Corporation tax is still scandalously low.

        Unfortunately remodeling taxation is probably even less popular than the return of fees.

        • copernicus Says:

          The UCU in England is a delusional bunch,always assuming that either money grows on trees or can be got by mugging the business which creates wealth.

        • Gary Barrett Says:

          “The UCU in England is a delusional bunch,always assuming that either money grows on trees or can be got by mugging the business which creates wealth.”

          I don’t think language like ‘mugging’ helps the debate.

          It could be argued that individuals would pick up the tab (or be ‘mugged’) in order to keep taxes on capital low whilst also allowing businesses to reduce employee education and training.

          Businesses in Ireland are certainly not mugged. As has been said, the Celtic tiger saw a major shift in Irish national income from earnings to profits. At the same time corporation tax was being reduced from 20% to 12.5%. Ireland also one of the lowest social insurance payments for companies. Transfer pricing and ‘double Irish’ are also common practice.

          In either policy option – increased taxes vs user charges & marketisation – the (stated) aim is for those who can afford to pay more, to do so. In my opinion this has to extend to the business sector, with general taxation being the most equitable method.

          The benefits of general taxation is that it could help to reduce inequality as a whole, which then helps widen access and decrease educational disadvantage. It also would provide funding deis schools, English language support and a host of early intervention schemes.

          Investing in equality has universal benefits.

          Unfortunately it looks like the government will choose to significantly increase the registration fee as a means to plug the funding gap, satisfying nobody.

    • copernicus Says:

      I can, looking at the diversity of students in UCL and Imperial since last 2 years, and they are from local comprehensive schools. My academic friends say that these students are from families who have had no experience of sending their children to these 2 universities for generations. These academics say that they see in their first year degree classes increasing number of students on bursaries and they are often the first ones in their families to go to university. The tuition fee of £3200 introduced about 4 years ago, has made this difference.

      • John Says:

        Copernicus please could you explain how/why you attribute this to a tuition fee and not, for example, to rising incomes/aspirations among the sponsoring families?

        • copernicus Says:

          There are 2 issues here: rising aspiration and rising income. As a govenor of two secondary schools, I often saw bright kids from poor families hesitant to go to A levels from GCSE ( poor parents wanted them to take up jobs any jobs as soon as they completed their GCSE) and even if they did, were deterred from going to say the above 2 universities which were the destinations of middle class kids from grammar and independent schools. The tuition fee introduced in 2006 made a dramatic difference. At the students’ end, students are given loans to cover tution and maintenance. That firmed up aspirations, and the increasing number of bursaries( as a direct result of tuition fees) have pushed the aspirations higher. Notice that I said in my posting above-the last 2 years -it took about 2 years for the universities to set aside the bursaries as the income built up(thanks to tuition fees ) and made the increase in bursaries possible. As for rising income, in England, the poor were hit by the stealth taxes of Brown govt, making rise in income virtually impossible. I know this from my own expereince that the kids who are going to these 2 universities, come from families who income has not changed for years. The visibility of so many poor ethnic students seen in these 2 universities during the last 2 years is testament to the positive effect of tuition fee.

  4. copernicus Says:

    Some typos ( e.g.experience). Sorry, I typed fast and on an uncooperative keyboard.

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