University tuition fees in an uncertain world
Almost every country with a mature system of higher education is struggling right now to work out how to fund it. The global economic crisis of the past two or three years has created major problems in public finances, and this in turn has prompted public expenditure cuts from which universities have not escaped. In that setting tuition fees have often seemed to be the only way to escape from the effects.
In Ireland, for now, the commitment to retain the so-called ‘free fees’ system remains, but the reality is that fees have been phased in by stealth and are set to grow. The ‘student registration charge’, first introduced in the late 1990s to provide some very minor student contribution to non-tuition costs, has grown over the years and now stands at €2,000. Along the way its formal title changed from ‘student registration charge’ to ‘student contribution charge’ (2010 Budget), so that the pretense that it was only funding non-tuition services was quietly dropped. And what’s next? There is at the moment a high degree of ambivalence in statements coming from the government, but it seems increasingly likely that fees will be part of the funding mix before long.
In England the British government has more or less stopped funding university teaching and has set a maximum fee that institutions are allowed to charge. It is a kind of ‘market’ according to some commentators, but if so it is one in which the government is attempting to control supply and demand and pricing, and is doing so in a less than sure-footed way. There is also a fair amount of evidence that the universities themselves have not understood their role in this at all, and have taken pricing decisions within the permitted range, or rather at the top of it, that demonstrate a lack of familiarity with business decision-making and a curious detachment from the actual educational consequences of their decisions.
In Scotland the government remains committed to the idea of the ‘democratic intellect’ (explored originally in a book in 1961 by George Elder Davie) and a distinct social and cultural approach to education, and in this spirit has committed itself to retaining free higher education for Scottish students. However, the government has allowed universities to set fees for students from the rest of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), up to a maximum of €9,000 per annum, and it is looking at ways in which a registration charge could be introduced that would not affect Scottish students. From the early announcements, Scottish universities appear to be behaving in this market much like the English ones have done, and the decisions on setting fees for rest-of-UK students are already mired in controversy (as this editorial in the Herald newspaper demonstrates).
Commentators hostile to tuition fees have described what is happening in England as ‘a market’, but in reality it is nothing of the kind; and that is part of the problem. What we are facing is a scene across the developed world in which funding has become uncertain and with it the consensus of what higher education is or should be. This allows the government and the universities in England, and indeed elsewhere, to take funding decisions that seem curiously divorced from their educational mission.
Each society needs to decide what it wants to do with higher education and how it wants to resource it. This should be the starting point, before fees are addressed. The problem with the traditional public educate model is that it neglected lower socio-economic groups while pretending to support them. But at least there was some philosophical underpinning, if not always well applied. In Ireland the funding was not made available to secure the principle of free education, even non good times. The new English model seems to represent no real view of the value and values of education. The Scottish model is much clearer in nature and purpose, but can look vulnerable in the context of public funding pressures.
None of these things will be done well unless we, as a society, are much clearer about what we want from higher education, and what we are prepared to so to support it. That clarity needs to be found, or our systems of higher education will decline, as is already happening. There is not much time to lose.