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.