Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Make the case for higher fees first

What can have possessed Universities UK to raise the spectacle of tuition fees of £5,000 or £7,000 right now? Of course, there is a promised review of the issue later in the year, and doubtless ministers will ensure that it reports to an incoming post-election government, just as Gillian Shephard did with Dearing's 1997 review.

But vice-chancellors who opined on their preferred fee levels for a separate BBC survey need to make a case for higher fees, not simply declare their ideal level of fee. At a time when the country is in economic recession, people need not only to hear the case for higher education as a way of generating a successful recovery but also the rationale for what could be a 100% fees hike.

And there is a good case for tuition fees (despite cries of 'middle class debt' from the Daily Mail), not least as the method of their repayment is both fair and progressive according to post-graduation income: those not in work pay nothing until they are. Moreover, the predictions from student leaders that fees would deter students have clearly come to nothing.

But the case for lifting the cap of £3225 has not been made yet by the vice-chancellors, particularly to a secretary of state who is not keen on doing so and a prime minister who thinks universities are hotbeds of inefficiency (and perhaps prejudice). Rather than fuelling wish lists, the VCs need to get back to first principles. As any undergraduate would (hopefully) tell them, you should make the case and marshal the facts before presenting your conclusions.

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