Understanding the objectives of higher education

Readers of this blog will know that I support the idea of student contributions to the cost of their university or college degree programmes. I support this for a variety of reasons: (a) because the state (and I mean pretty much any state) chronically under-funds higher education, and in a developed knowledge society a cut-price education system undermines most of the necessary economic and social goals; (b) because whatever way you try to run it, the already advantaged habitually secure all of the access they want before those with fewer inherited advantages get a look in, and therefore an entirely publicly funded system that doesn’t specifically focus on and pay for equity of access can operate as a tax on disadvantage; and (c) because higher education qualifications confer a selective benefit on some members of society, and it is not unreasonable that they should contribute to the costs (unless you really want a higher education system that is universal, i.e. one that everyone is required to participate in).

Nevertheless, higher education is not primarily a financial transaction, and having a system of fees or contributions that does not reinforce the benefits that we as a society want to see achieved is also wrong. Before we can with any conviction say that a particular way of funding universities is right, we need to be clear about what it is that we want these universities to do. So, I am actually in agreement with those who, in recent protests, have been saying that a system of fees that essentially turn universities into a somewhat grander version of grind schools would be perverse. The purpose of a fee is not to turn a degree programme into a private service for the ‘purchaser’, but rather to recognise the appropriateness of a contribution to an economic and social good, which in this instance also confers a recognisable personal benefit. This can only be achieved appropriately if the fee is a contribution to cost rather than a payment for a service. And this in turn suggests that the taxpayer, who shares in the benefit of the educational outputs, also make a contribution.

Furthermore, it is my view that the contribution of both – student and taxpayer – should be seen as a funding mechanism rather than a payment; by which I mean that the contribution of the student in particular should be a contribution to the educational enterprise rather than the specific programme – it is a contribution to overheads rather than the purchase of a product. Therefore, it would in my view be wrong to have differential fees depending on the degree programme chosen. This is important also because some of the most expensive programmes provide particular benefits to society, sometimes without providing higher salary benefits to graduates, and so it would be perverse to discourage students from taking them by requiring higher payments. But equally, allowing public money to support only some degree programmes turns the others – those not funded by the taxpayer – into private benefits in which we declare there is no public interest; this is a bizarre idea, since if there were such private-interest-only programmes they should have no place in a university at all.

Funding higher education is not just about making the sums add up; it is about striking the right balance between utilitarian objectives and the imperative to support knowledge, discovery, civilisation, culture, fairness and prosperity. We have, in my view, travelled some way in the right direction when we recognise that higher education cannot simply be treated as a universal benefit; but we will go all wrong if we think that it is just about paying for some people’s career progression. If we want to have a proper funding framework for higher education, then we had better understand why we would want to fund it at all.

Right now higher education in this part of the word is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and worryingly it is not just financial bankruptcy.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

12 Comments on “Understanding the objectives of higher education”

  1. Al Says:

    The universities walked into this situation willingly with a Celtic tiger sugar daddy. But at least we became world class out of it. Or was it paid world class prices…

  2. iainmacl Says:

    Mike Russell, the minister for education that you will soon be dealing with, said this last week regarding fees when being grilled at a parliamentary committee.

    “I disagree with it because the Scottish tradition of higher education is one in which the state takes primary responsibility.”

    Mr Russell said the funding changes in England “clearly and explicitly” land students with the main responsibility for funding their courses, instead of the state.

    “That is what is being openly said and what is being demonstrated against today in London,” Mr Russell added.

    “I believe the state has the primary responsibility in Scotland, therefore I do not accept automatically that there should be a graduate contribution.”

    He also voiced reservations about asking individuals who have been through “particular parts” of education to pay for that.

    He added: “Where do we stop? If higher education is an advantage, is learning to read and write an advantage?

    “Should individuals who are then taught to read and write pay more in taxation? I think you need to be very careful about this.”

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    ‘The purpose of a fee is not to turn a degree programme into a private service for the ‘purchaser’, but rather to recognise the appropriateness of a contribution to an economic and social good, which in this instance also confers a recognisable personal benefit.’ Beautifully put, Ferdinand, I sincerely hope that this will become the prevalent view, at least in Scotland…

  4. copernicus Says:

    Ferdinand,
    “So, I am actually in agreement with those who, in recent protests, have been saying that a system of fees that essentially turn universities into a somewhat grander version of grind schools would be perverse. The purpose of a fee is not to turn a degree programme into a private service for the ‘purchaser’, but rather to recognise the appropriateness of a contribution to an economic and social good, which in this instance also confers a recognisable personal benefit. ”

    First, in London, a hard core of these were middle class students as it has been shown, and their vandalism is not protest but criminal act. A few may disagree with this, but that is the truth.

    Almost all academics and some VCs are terrified of market, and hence the public good argument is proposed to hide this sense of entitlement. Times have changed and bullets have to be bitten.

    Second, more and more students, academically not able are going to the university and the percentage is increasing year by year and funding this from pure tax payer’s money? For how long? Mike Russell may say things but uncle English has to pay for the luxury of free education in Scotland, or Scots need to pay more tax to keep this luxury along with free precription charges etc.. etc.. Should be interesting to see the juggling execise by the Scottish govt in these days of cuts.

    Academics , VCs and educationists and the lot shy away from debating whether university courses are essential for all these students who are not academically able, and whether there is an alternative route like vocational diplomas. Scotland industry desperately need many who have diplomas and if my information is upto date, currently they are imported from outside the EU.

    An issue which no VC in Britain is not prepared to address is why their universities have become “Global”? Should RGU call itself a global university-a kind of virility symbol? Why did it expand so much? Why it has failed to attract as many local students as RGIT did, necessitating foray into India every year? If this is not for the purpose of getting increased fee from non-EU students, a sort of commercial venture to keeep it expansion intact, then what is it? People may argue that universities like RGU which expanded by almost 60% and which scour India length and breadth to bring in students every year (some schools are dependent on these overseas students, and closure is not an option they say) is doing so to subsidise the income lost through not having fee for home students. I know a few VCs here in Britain who privately admit that the overseas fee for non-EU students is also subsidised at that level. Do we need this luxury?

    What this fee question has thrown up is that there will be more intitutions like local colleges which will get the opportunity to run 2 year degrees or as the Edexcel the English secondary school board which also validates diplomas in colleges says it will validate degrees in local colleges which cost less-feewise. Assume for a moment that Aberdeen College is able to award its own degrees through an arrangement with a board like Edexcel, what will be the situation of RGU to which this colege feeds plenty of students through a collaborative agreement?

    We need to address the expansion of universities when we start discussing about funding, fees etc.. This is the elephant in the room.

    • Iainmacl Says:

      ‘uncle english’…?? Really, Copernicus. Financially speaking Scotland is a net contributor to the UK despite the Daily Mail and Evening Standard stereotype of susbidy junkies! The question is, why can’t Scotland keep the revenues generated within for purposes and priorities determined by their government instead of having the vast majority controlled by Westminster.


  5. “Readers of this blog will know that I support the idea of student contributions to the cost of their university or college degree programmes.” I understood you to be in favour of the reintroduction of fees. The two of course are not incompatible but cry out for a clear statement. I’ve pursued you on this because, as I said before, it’s not reasonable to ask a citizen to decide without knowing the consequences.

    You could ask people if they’d be happy with student contributions to the cost of university or college degree programmes? They might say, yes.
    You could ask the same people if they’d be happy with a return to student fees? Those who said, yes above, might now say, no. They’d also, I’d wager, begin to experience suspicion: what is this guy really proposing?

    Any fees/contribution proposal has to state the amount to be paid, the approx. income expected, and the level of personal or family income of those on whom the obligation to pay – in full or part – will fall.

    As to your reasons, I can accept the truth of a) and c), though they don’t support your argument to the exclusion of others. b) is different. As we’ve discussed many times, educational deprivation is a result of poverty. I enthusiastically and actively support educational schemes to “rescue” a few but in truth little can be done about the numbers unless there is huge intervention long before poor children even reach school.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your opposition to the creation of a market. This sort of simple-minded solution has been popular for decades. I think the term, “market fundamentalism”, is apt, a quasi-religious adherence to an idea in the face of contrary evidence.

  6. copernicus Says:

    “An issue which no VC in Britain is not prepared to address ” should read: “An issue which no VC in Britain is prepared to address”.

  7. Stephen Baker Says:

    Couldn’t you just as easily make the argument that the problem of state underfunding should be tackled by applying pressure to the state to pay more? Or is it just easier to bully people into making a contribution than the state?

    And once people pay for something aren’t they consumers, and so whether you like it or not you’ve introduced the market into HE?


    • Putting pressure on the state to pay more never has any impact whatsoever – and why would it? We tried that for years, with zero effect. And it’s the same in every other country, except when the government has already decided to increase funding (and that’s very rare, anywhere outside of Asia in recent years).

      As for people paying being consumers, do I take it you believe therefore that every citizen when they pay tax is a consumer, and that the revenue is a market? As a matter of interest, what do you actually think ‘the market’ is?

  8. Stephen Baker Says:

    There’s a difference between the idea of public services and institutions being paid for through a system of progressive taxation and consumerism. I’m sure you can tell the difference.

    At the moment, we haven’t quite achieved the marketisation of HE in the UK but the Browne review looks like we’re well on our way now, and I would argue that the introduction of fees under the last Labour government paved the way. As Browne himself says, he wants to put the students in charge. I shudder with anticipation. What will HE look like in the Uk in 10 years time once it has been subjected to the consumer sovereignty of mostly 18 year olds? That’s the market for ya!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: