Tuition fees: uncertainty and confusion

In the broader political landscape, it used to be easier to identify the positions of political parties on higher education fees. Now the position is becoming rather more fluid. The Conservatives in Britain (or for these purposes, England) had been advocates of fees as a major contributor to university revenues, and in the aftermath of the Browne report (but not particularly following Browne’s advice) they lifted the upper limit to £6,000 while allowing universities to go as high as £9,000 in limited circumstances and subject to certain conditions regarding access for the disadvantaged. Once it became clear that most universities were heading straight for the ‘exceptional’ £9,000 ceiling – which was predicted by absolutely everyone but which seemed to take the government totally by surprise – a certain amount of humming and hawing set in on the part of ministers, and now the universities minister, David Willetts, is threatening further funding cuts if this is what really happens.

Meanwhile in Ireland the Labour Party, which until now seemed to be rock solid against tuition fees – is starting to engage in public musings about the theoretical possibility of not quite ruling out some sort of student contribution, fees even.

What many of the politicians appear to have in common, whether they are for or against tuition fees, is a basic lack of understanding about the huge cost of providing a modern, internationally competitive higher education system. Generally they now recognise that tax revenues won’t pay for this, or at least not all of it. But they are finding it difficult to come to grips with how this should be handled, and are very very afraid of the electoral implications. What has happened to Nick Clegg in terms of his public image is not far from anyone’s mind.

However difficult this issue may be politically, it is crucial for higher education itself. Just as governments are raising expectations of what universities can and need to do for society and the economy, they are busily removing the resources that would let the universities meet these expectations. This cannot go on. Politicians need to become realistic and honest in what they say and do in this matter. If they want an excellent higher education system that can be there with the best in the world, they must find the resources. There is no cut price alternative version that is as good as Harvard or MIT or Caltech. There just isn’t.

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12 Comments on “Tuition fees: uncertainty and confusion”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    In a recently leaked consultation paper
    (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/08/cambridge-university-tuition-fees-maximum-9000)
    produced by the University of Cambridge one reads:
    “most if not all of our peers” will charge the maximum, before adding: “To charge less than £9,000 might raise questions about our commitment to excellence….” The latter statement, in particular, for me, reads like the educational equivalent of the famous L’Oréal commercial “Because we’re worth it”, educational excellence has firmly taken its place in the world of commodities and it’s all right to pay a high fee for the best provided that such ‘excellence’ is, at least nominally, shared with a few representatives from a ‘disadvantaged background’. A truly charitable principle applied to public policy can make you get away with anything!

    • Jilly Says:

      That statement also demonstrates a predictable feature of a market-led approach to education, in which it will be presumed that the most expensive is the best. I dimly recall from my study of economics a special supply-and-demand graph for certain types of commodities, in which the demand rises in parallel with the price, rather than against it. These are commodities which are associated with the concept of luxury (or in this case excellence). One of the economist posters here may be able to remind me what the term for this is?

      Either way, it’s not a good basis for costing/funding education.

      • anna notaro Says:

        no, it’s not, more specifically with regards to the fees situtation in England, the paradox is that on one side the coalition government has put forward a liberal market driven model, while on the other it is now threatning to legislate if universities do not make provisions for ‘poor students’, this is the worst of both worlds: a mess!

  2. iain Says:

    Oh come on, ‘as good as Harvard or MIT or Caltech’. What does that mean? Should Irish fees be high enough to meet the endowments of Harvard or match the ‘Defence’ support of MIT? Surely this whole Harvard envy stuff is completely inappropriate and a farce, or is this the new strategic ambition of RGU or DCU?

    Are we to pump millions into new ‘Innovation centres’ in our universities whilst dropping our kids off at school in leaky portakabins, teaching them to memorise a teacher’s description of a lab experiment that they don’t have the equipment to actually undertake.

    Yes, as you have said, it probably is time to re-examine what we really want universities to be and how they relate to wider society and the educational ecosystem (pre-school, school, adult education, informal learning, training, professional development, literacy and skills, etc)

    But a mad drive to bring in fees, ramping them up year on year in a deluded race to the mythical ‘world class’ status of league tables designed to sell newspapers is a sure sign that the sector really is scraping the barrel in terms of leadership, vision (lack of) and creativity.

    Climbing the league table is not the same as improving the experience of students and staff, of building high quality teaching and learning that we can feel proud of, that focuses on real learning, sowing the seeds for future innovation through nurturing a love of learning, displaying a passionate commitment to teaching and undertaking research in a collaborative rather than competitive ethos. This isn’t money, its belief, vision, call it what you will but we can certainly recognise when its missing.

  3. Mark Dowling Says:

    The Labour Party’s position is dishonest in its phrasing. Students ARE paying fees in Irish universities. Either forbid “service charges” or call them fees and allow increases – those are the options.

  4. Vincent Says:

    I’m never quite sure when FvP produces posts like this one whether people outside the system can comment.

  5. Al Says:

    Something equally disturbing is that education has become a political play thing, more so during this election where the jousting has entered the hyperbolic.
    Is there anyone contesting that speaks with knowledge and experience?
    So far:
    Teachers aren’t good enough and need extra training…
    Presumably she ment all teachers?
    Third level should be sweated to attract foreign students….
    Presumably we are confident enough on their coming to develop the extra facilities required to service them.
    70% ? Of our youth are to go onto third level…. is this to distract them from the fact that there won’t be the jobs available for their qualifications?

    Can’t wait for all the help….

    • anna notaro Says:

      Al, education has ALWAYS been a political ‘play thing’, nothing new there..

      • Al Says:

        Agreed
        Maybe I am out of line here, but when a political system that has demonstrated the level of competence that ours has, starts to use education, health, etc as collateral in political posturing, then I get a little nervous.
        Of course there is interaction, but some of the proposed agendas are speculation at best.

  6. jfryar Says:

    Hmmm … so if not the taxpayer or students, where might we get money for the higher education system? Maybe we might look at the multi-billion euro profits of the multinationals employing our college graduates and ask why our corporation tax is so low?

  7. no-name Says:

    It’s sad when people who have benefited from third level education advocate depriving others of same.


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