Posted tagged ‘tuition fees’

How should we view student debt?

November 22, 2011

One of the growing concerns across the developed world is that student debt will increasingly deter young people from entering higher education. In the United States the level of graduate debt is now over $900 billion, a sum considerably larger than American credit card debt. In England individual student debt in the more extreme cases has risen above £60,000.

So is this a major problem in the quest to widen participation in higher education? Not so, according to the English Universities Minister David Willetts in an interview in the Guardian newspaper:

‘We’re trapped in this language of debt. It’s not like leaving university with £25,000 worth of debt on your credit card or anything. If someone said your child was leaving university with £25,000 on a credit card, you’d be quite rightly horrified. If someone said they’re leaving university and during their working lives they’re going to pay half a million pounds of income tax, you’d be completely relaxed. And our graduate repayment scheme is closer to – it’s not exactly the same – but it’s closer to the income-tax end of the scale than the credit-card end of the scale. If their earnings ever fall below £21,000, at that point any repayment stops. It’s 9% of earnings only above £21,000. If you’re earning £25,000, that’s £30 a month. So it is a graduate repayment scheme that has many of the features of income tax. It’s not like some debt around their necks.’

The Minister’s argument is not on the face of it absurd. In fact, if the government had decided to generate the income for universities through a graduate tax, or rather if it had labelled the same scheme differently, the effect might have been different. But it didn’t, and fees will be funded by loans, which in turn produce debt. It is still too early to gauge exactly what impact this is having, but the first visible effect has been a significant reduction in the number of student applicants.

The evidence from the United States, Australia and Britain all points to a similar conclusion: that student loans have unintended consequences and present both a disincentive to study and financial uncertainties attached to repayments. In this setting, it would be wise for countries contemplating loan schemes – like Ireland – to think again. It is one thing to ask those who can afford to do so to pay a tuition fee; it is another to suggest to those who cannot afford it that a loan may be an acceptable form of support. It almost certainly isn’t.

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Irish university funding: the continuing uncertainty

November 17, 2011

Yesterday in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, refused to rule out the return of tuition fees. though clearly showing some level of discomfort at the prospect. However, according to a report in the Irish Times the more likely development will be a continuing year-on-year increase in what is now called the ‘student contribution charge’, perhaps to €2,500 in the coming year. All of this is in the context of a major student protest in Dublin yesterday, and the submission earlier this week of a report by the Higher Education Authority to the government on university funding.

It is clear that the Minister has a difficult task – though admittedly one made more difficult by his signing of a USI-organised pre-election pledge not to reintroduce tuition fees (which I argued at the time was not a good move). The problem is that the Irish taxpayer cannot afford to fund universities properly at the current time, but the political establishment does not want fees. In reality of course the ‘contribution charge’ is now a fee, albeit an inadequate one for resourcing purposes.

In all of this there is a risk of policy drift. Right now it is not clear what the government, or for that matter anyone else, wants to achieve in higher education funding. There is no clear strategy and therefore a large amount of confusion as to what will happen next. In the meantime the global standing of the Irish institutions is eroding, which in turn may damage economic regeneration. It seems to me therefore that the key requirement right now is to produce a clarity of purpose. Uncertainty is the biggest risk of all.

Do the rich go in search of really high tuition fees?

October 14, 2011

Here’s an interesting analysis. Professor John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham has suggested that the top-of-the-range fees charged by the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews will act as a magnet for very rich students, enticing them away from the likes of Oxford and Cambridge as these charge £9,000 less over the full degree cycle. As a result, the two Scottish universities will be swamped by super-duper-rich English students, who will crowd out the Scots (who don’t pay fees) and hugely upset the local population with their plummy accents (well, he didn’t say that last bit, but you get the idea).  There is no sign in the report that Professor Holmwood is using any empirical evidence to support his contention.

To avoid any doubt, let me say that I am not suggesting that high tuition fees are desirable, but I am strongly sceptical of the idea that high fees are seen by anyone as a reliable quality statement. Overall in Britain some universities appear to have been attracted to the notion that unless you charge high fees people will assume you’re not much good. In this frame of mind, universities would set fees not in order to cover their costs and provide room for investment, but in order to place a designer label on their degree programmes. So if you follow that logic, a university which is, say, around number 90 in the league tables can at one stroke remove the difference with a university at, say, number 5 by ensuring that it charges the same fees or a little more. The subtext of all of this is presumably that the rich are thick.

There is an urgent need for a proper analysis of the case for and the impact of tuition fees, and of pricing methods in higher education – assuming that (as in England) higher education is not entirely funded by public money. But the idea that price of itself is a guide to quality needs to be nailed, not least because it is an exceptionally stupid idea. It does not become more intelligent if it is used by those arguing against tuition fees, as is apparently being done by Professor Holmwood.

RGU announces fees for students from the rest of the UK

September 23, 2011

As readers of this blog will know, there are no university tuition fees in Scotland for Scottish and EU students. However, in the light of the new fees régime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and further in order to ensure that university places in Scotland are not placed under impossible pressure of demand from the rest of the UK, the Scottish government announced that universities can charge rest-of-UK students up to £9,000 p.a. from the academic year 2012-13.

Most Scottish universities have now announced their rest-of-UK fees, with a number of institutions opting for the £9,000 limit (though in the cases of Aberdeen University and Heriot Watt, these fees apply to three years only, with the final year free to those whose studies cover four years).

Today my own institution, Robert Gordon University, has made its rest-of-UK fees announcement, and we have decided to set fees in accordance with the actual cost of delivering the degrees. This means that we have set the fees in three bands, with fees ranging from £5,000 to £6,750, with one programme (Master of Pharmacy) having a fee of £8,500. Under this framework Scottish students do not subsidise students from the rest of the UK, and these in turn do not subsidise Scottish students; we regard this as a fair and transparent framework.

RGU will also announce a framework for scholarships, bursaries and student support for all students in due course.

University tuition fees in an uncertain world

September 12, 2011

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.

The future of higher education: the key issue is autonomy

September 6, 2011

The recent speech by Tom Boland, chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, on what he called ‘directed diversity’ prompted a lively debate in the comments section of this blog. The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that  universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.

The proposal as described will almost certainly be strongly opposed by at least some groups of lecturers, perhaps because it could remove the discretion from universities as to how to plan their teaching. Some lecturers with this perspective argue that  national strategic coordination will remove the relative freedom and discretion that academics currently enjoy.

However, there is also a wider university dimension. The autonomy of universities is protected in Ireland by the Universities Act 1997, and any change in current practice would arguably require a new statute. But leaving aside the legal dimension, the autonomy of universities ensures that they can address the educational, social, scientific and cultural issues of the day and respond imaginatively to them.  Furthermore, autonomy is not about having the right to decide how to implement strategic objectives that have been set. Rather, autonomy is about determining those strategic objectives in an independent manner.

I doubt that a framework of ‘directed diversity’ can work, because it will have to handle too many inherent contradictions. I would strongly argue that institutional autonomy must remain a major higher education strategy. I am not convinced that Tom Boland’s vision, if implemented, would allow that to be the case.

Scottish fees for non-Scottish UK students

September 6, 2011

The decision by the British government to allow English universities to charge tuition fees of up to £6,000 – or £9,000 if certain conditions on access are met – has had repercussions beyond England. One of these repercussions is that Scotland has had to introduce a fees régime for so-called ‘Rest of UK’ (RUK) students. This prevents English (and other RUK) students from occupying a disproportionate number of Scottish university places.

Scotland’s universities are now permitted to charge tuition fees for RUK students of up to £9,000, which is the cap in England. However, because Scottish degree programmes tend to run for four years rather than England’s three years, the effect of setting fees at £9,000 p.a. in theory creates a financial burden that is significantly greater than that affecting English students going to English universities. This at any rate is how the announcement of £9,000 per annum fees by Edinburgh University is being read.

This may look like, and may even be, a messy arrangement, but it is difficult to see how the government could have a voided a step of this kind. The decision is being challenged in the courts. But whatever the outcome of the hearing may be, this is not really judicial or legal question. It is one about the nature of society and the integrity of the nation. For better or for worse, the decisions by Scotland’s universities on RUK fees will attract some attention over the coming weeks.

Follow the money?

August 25, 2011

Here’s a thing. YouGov-Cambridge recently carried out a survey of 4,000 people exploring British attitudes to higher education (though this may have been English rather than ‘British’).  When respondents were invited to identify the word that most closely described higher education, this is the world cloud that came up.

What should concern us in this is not just the identification of cost as the most important factor, but the fact that ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’ are amongst the almost invisible terms.

Of course England has its own specific issues in the aftermath of the funding reform there, and some might argue that this would play differently elsewhere. I might have some doubts that it would. Money has become the key point of discussion, and while funding is of course necessary in order that universities can offer excellent programmes and research, it is the means rather than the end.

It is vital that the public debate around higher education is not just seen as money talk. For that to work, of course, the major money concerns of the sector must be addressed. But the universities themselves need to ensure that what they are putting into the public domain is not just all about funding. It is time to expand the debate.

Steadying Irish higher education

August 21, 2011

Over the past few days in Ireland there has been some talk about the possible education – and higher education – reforms that may now be planned by the government. This was prompted by a report in the Irish Independent giving details of a paper submitted last year by the Department of Education to the Department of Finance. The context of the paper was the continuing public funding crisis in Ireland, and therefore the search for savings.

The authors of the paper had suggested that what has previously been known as the ‘student registration charge’ (but which under the last Budget of the Fianna Fail/Greens administration was actually designated the ‘student contribution charge’) might rise to €3,000 per annum. Around the same time, as we have already noted in this blog, the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, indicated the there would not be a proposal for a student loan system to fund tuition fees.

The memorandum reported by the Irish Independent probably cannot be seen as representing government policy, in that it was part of the search for a Budget savings by the last government. Nevertheless, the overall mood music now is that there is a serious funding gap, that the taxpayer cannot afford to fill it, and that student contributions may be unavoidable. While this latter point has not ben confirmed by the government, it has not been denied either.

However, important though a solution to the funding crisis is, there is more to be done. The higher education system in Ireland has been subjected to unprecedented criticism and hostility over recent months; its community is facing low morale, enormous pressures due to the consequences of the employment control framework and its impact on staffing levels, and a lack of self-confidence. This is damaging in part because higher education is the key ingredient of economic recovery, and it needs some nurturing and support.

It is important that the structural and financial changes to be introduced in the Irish higher education system proceed quickly, so that stability and sustainability can return. Doing so is ultimately in the national interest.

Securing the future of Irish higher education

August 18, 2011

Irish higher education, the engine that drove the Irish economy forward in recent decades by providing skilled graduates for the major investments by ICT companies in the 1990s and by acting as magnet for knowledge-intensive investment and start-ups over the past ten years or, so continues to face major problems. By common consent – and this includes the view of the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD – it is seriously under-funded and cannot realistically perform the tasks set for it. It has been buffeted by public criticism of the quality of its graduates. It has been told that it now faces an era of much heavier regulation.

Over recent years the university presidents have called for the reintroduction of tuition fees in order to off-set reductions in public funding and in order to protect the universities’ ability to compete internationally and maintain high levels of quality.  This call for tuition fees has been accompanied by the proposal that they should be made affordable through the provision of student loans. However, doubts have arisen – prompted in part by the controversial higher education reforms in England – whether students will be able to carry debts of this magnitude and whether in consequence there is a likelihood of significant default or non-repayment of loans.

Now the Minister has announced that, whatever funding framework may be found, it will not involve student loans. He is right to decide the issue in this way. Student loans excessively delay the provision of funds and create a major uncertainty as to the amounts likely to be raised. They also obscure the more urgent need of redirecting some of the fee income (if there are fees) to socio-economically disadvantaged students to ensure that they are not discouraged from entering higher education.

However, given the consensus on the inadequacy of current funding levels, it is now urgent that a resourcing plan for higher education is finalised and announced. The current financial uncertainty is undermining the capacity of the sector to support Irish economic recovery.