Tuition fees; or not; or what?

Perhaps unexpectedly, tuition fees moved centre stage in the recent UK general election. It is assumed by several commentators that the promise by the Labour Party to scrap tuition fees in England (Scotland has none) and restore free higher education played a major part in bringing out the youth vote and upsetting Conservative plans in the election.

Since then, the Guardian newspaper has carried opinion pieces by Christopher Newfield, Professor of English and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and by David Green, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester, calling for a policy change. Professor Green suggests a return to a version of the pre-2012 framework in which the cost of university studies was shared by the state and the student (he would now add ‘companies’ to the mix), while Professor Newfield wants tuition fees scrapped completely.

Each of these pieces contain some strange or unrealistic elements. Professor Newfield rather astonishingly suggests that the cost to the taxpayer of abolishing tuition fees would at worst be £48 per taxpayer per year. Even taking the most favourable options for this, such a sum would have to be paid by over 166 million taxpayers every year, which is several times the number of taxpayers actually available; and that doesn’t address the accumulated enormous student debt. Professor Green wants ‘companies’ to shoulder some of the funding burden; but apart from this being a somewhat vague class of funders, how would this be administered or enforced?

What both comment pieces have in common, however, is a search for a reason why one group rather than another should shoulder the burden. Professor Newfield, like many others, believes that education as a public good needs to be funded by the taxpayer. Professor Green sees more of a mix of stakeholders who should contribute, including (in some measure) the students.

I confess I find the public good/private good debate on tuition somewhat pointless, because it obscures the real social and economic issues and ignores to a large extent the needs of the universities themselves for adequate resourcing. The harsh reality is that free tuition requires the taxpayer to make a major investment in supporting wealthier sections of the population, often at the expense of poorer ones; it is ultimately a redistribution of money from the poor to the rich. The standard response to this is that this can be balanced by securing more revenue from wealthy taxpayers. The problem is that this isn’t ever done, and in any case tax revenues are never hypothecated, so that even if it were done there is no guarantee that the funds secured would be spent on universities (they almost certainly wouldn’t be during times of scarce public money). So free tuition tends to go hand in hand with inadequate university participation by less well-off sections of the population and the decline of the university sector during difficult economic cycles (something that pretty well everyone now accepts has happened in Ireland).

On the other hand, the payment of tuition fees funded by student loans, based on some sort of understanding of most university education as a private good, creates horrendous debts that will, in very many cases, never be repaid and thus create a huge financial liability that will have to be met at some point, but no one knows by whom. This system also punishes the disadvantaged, who don’t enjoy special financial support and who may find that their debts have left them facing negative educational equity, with the added salary value of their qualifications not matching the accumulated amount of their debts.

Three points seem to me to be totally obvious. (1) The state does have a direct interest in advancing higher education that is both inclusive and properly resourced; it absolutely must make a major contribution. (2) The state must provide baseline funding for all institutions and all subject areas, but must also target a significant part of its funding where it is most needed: participation by groups experiencing socio-economic disadvantage (and not just by removing the burden of fees but also by providing adequate financial support). (3) Students from all groups other than socio-economically disadvantaged ones must make a contribution to the cost of their studies.

I genuinely respect those in politics and other walks of life who argue as a matter of principle that university tuition should be free. But in practice this doesn’t have the intended effect. On the other hand, a student loan-funded system creates a huge problem further down the line and generates a highly arguable vision of what higher education is all about.

This is not an easy policy to get right, because emotions run high and political competition is involved. I hope nevertheless that I shall live to see a much better and fairer and more effective system of higher education funding than I have experienced to date.

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6 Comments on “Tuition fees; or not; or what?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    This is an excellent post and a welcome contribution to the debate, I always thought that when policies assume a *totemic*, undisputable character – being them tuition fees, the NHS or Brexit – that is exactly the time when a scholarly and emotionally intelligent scrutiny is at its most valuable, failing that the only voices to be heard will be those of ideologues.

  2. Vince Says:

    Out of my direct experience there is no point in having free fees without balancing the income for poorer students with outright grants sufficient to allow them compete for accommodation. In Ireland at the moment the grant doesn’t come near paying for food and board. And anyone saying they can work is outright delusional. On this I felt that the UK’s access to loans balanced, or gave the possibility at least. The Irish system is just poisoned.


  3. Time was, in the UK at least, that Government paid all fees and gave out means-tested maintenance grants. Now this is clearly impossible, with half the school-leaving population going on to higher education, and I can’t get a plumber.


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