Monday, 27 July 2009

Moving the tuition fees debate on

Lord Mandelson's speech to Universities UK, in which he argues that any fees rise must be linked to access, is important for two reasons. The first is that he is clearly making a serious effort to engage with the parts of the education sector for which he is responsible. But the second and more significant is that he has effectively made clear that an increase in the maximum level of fees will come after a review due to start later in the year. In his speech, he says this:
“I do not believe that we can separate the issues of fees, access and student support. Any institution that wants to use greater costs to the student to fund excellence must face an equal expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just those with the ability to pay. Whatever funding mix for higher education we develop, there must always be a link between what an institution charges and its performance in widening access and supporting those without the ability to pay.”
Of course, it could be argued that this doesn't say anything new, and he assures us that he doesn't wish to pre-empt a review which is likely to see fees increase from £3225 to between £5,000 and £7,000 a year some time after a 201o election. Both main parties are happy for a review to report then, as happened with Dearing. And neither party will want to argue the case for an increase. But today's speech suggests a rise is inevitable, not least if universities are expected to bear cuts in their grants after 2011 with the main parties trying to protect schools, hospitals and overseas aid.

After all, the notion that fees that are paid by income-earners after graduation are deterring would-be students is hardly borne out by the record numbers of applicants this year, after several years of rapid rises. Even the Lib Dems seem set to abandon their opportunistic opposition to fees.

This shouldn't mean that universities don't have to make a better case for a fees increase than they have been making to date. Universities need to make more of their wider contribution to the economy and society, through research and teaching, or their role with schools in lifting aspirations and improving social mobility. They also need to do a lot more to show students that they are getting a good deal, with first-class teaching and learning resources. These too should be a part of the review of fees. After all, getting students to apply is only a start; ensuring they get the most from their university experience matters just as much.

1 comment:

Alastair Thomson, NIACE said...

Perhaps the most positive aspect of the speech is the recognition that HE policy has for too long been weighted to providing an extended initial education to young adults at the expense of lifelong learning. By recognising the growing importance of part-time study for adults it prepares the ground for a much more sensible debate on fees.

Truly mode-free funding of HE won’t come about overnight but a recognition that current distinctions between full- and part-time study are neither fair nor sensible is a start. The next step will be to acknowledge that the withdrawal of public funding for equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQs) caused far more damage to the ecology of part-time study than the modest savings it sought.