Tuesday, 3 November 2009

University challenge

Following Lord Mandelson's announcements on universities today, I have written this for the Public Finance blog:

The parties are pushing any decision on increased university tuition fees until after a 2010 election. All the predictions suggest that the review will propose that fees increase from their current maximum of £3225 a year to anything between £5000 and £7000. But neither the Conservatives – who have dropped their previous opposition to fees – nor Labour are keen to advertise this before an election. Hence the cross-party agreement on a fees review – details probably next week, but heralded by today’s publication of a new higher education framework by Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, echoing a similar deal between the Tories and Labour in the Dearing review that led to the £1000 annual fee after the 1997 election.

In some ways, it is easier now than before. The last two changes to fees had no lasting negative impact on student numbers. Indeed, the problem today is that there are too many applications for cost-limited places. And where the big concern was that a new fees system would hit social mobility – again it hasn’t, as students are cushioned by income-contingent loans repaid only on graduation - there is now just as much concern about the quality of courses and the contribution being made by employers.

Of course, efforts on social mobility need to continue and intensify, as Mandelson said today. And they need to be better targeted, with more emphasis on links at an earlier age in schools. But the new emphasis on course quality is overdue. Many students and their parents bemoan the limited teaching hours and tutorial time in too many universities. It is a complaint heard as loudly from overseas students who already pay in excess of £10,000 a year for their courses. It is evident in any reading of the. National Student Survey for individual faculties. Now there is cross-party acceptance that something must be done. And universities need to do much more to respond.

The second issue of employment links is sometimes presented as a form of philistinism. In reality, many degree courses, especially those taken by mature students, are highly employment-focused already. The issue for government – and society – is whether employers should contribute more of the cost, and do more to help shape such courses. This is about more than sponsoring individual students: it could see more degree courses delivered largely in the workplace, for example. Such developments are where the real expansion of higher education – that which is vital to the economy - might take place over the next decade, often with part-time students.

In addressing these issues head on – despite an understandable wish to leave the level of fees for later – Peter Mandelson is showing a decisiveness in higher education that seemed lacking in his more cautious predecessor, John Denham. While Denham extended grants, the cost was borne in fewer places. And he made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for higher fees. Yet universities need the money to stay competitive. They – and employers, who have argued for the fees increase – now need to show that they can meet the higher expectations placed on them in return.

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