The summer of 2017 will go down as one of those periods in history when universities suddenly found themselves the focus of a game of political kickabout. The political consensus that had apparently existed about tuition fees was shattered by just five paragraphs in the Labour party general election manifesto and the ensuing debate.
The debate is one that I welcome. I say this as someone who fully benefited as a student from state funding of higher education in the 1980s but who also vividly remembers how resource-starved state universities were during that period.
It is right to re-examine how we pay for universities and how we best fund and share the cost between the state and students. But we should not lose sight of the fact that tuition fees are also bringing benefits for students, universities, local communities and the country.
Universities are all about opportunities. I grew up in the north east of England in the 1970s and opportunity was in short supply. Getting to university was my golden ticket to opportunity and I will always be grateful for that.
Opportunities at university obviously include learning and research but you can also count among them gaining real world skills and knowledge, exploring what you want to do with your life, studying abroad, trying new activities and sports, and developing career opportunities. Going to university is a unique experience that not only offers people all those opportunities but also gives some precious time, space and freedom to explore.
In a post-Brexit but globalised world our country will need bright, creative, technically and intellectually skilled people from the arts and humanities, health and medicine, science and social sciences to ensure our economic success in the longer term. We should be under no illusions that other nations around the world also recognise this imperative.
Other developed countries are investing in educational attainment. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development tertiary education attendance figures for 2016 show that among 25- to 34-year-olds in South Korea it’s 70 per cent; in Canada it’s 61 per cent; in Japan it’s 60 per cent; and in Lithuania it’s 55 per cent. Here in the UK it’s 52 per cent.
It is at this point that the debate about fees in this country has me most worried. There is a resurgent narrative that the opportunity of a university education shouldn’t be a possibility for everyone, argued in part that it should be preserved as something for an elite, and in part that far too many people are now going to university.
At my institution, the University of East Anglia, we want to continue to widen opportunities for students locally, nationally and internationally to further themselves, to develop skills and knowledge, and to go out and help to change the world. It should not be forgotten that tuition fees play a significant part on that front, both at UEA and for universities across the country.
Tuition fees have had the effect of opening doors rather than closing them. Between 2006 and 2016 the numbers of university students from lower-income backgrounds has increased proportionally by almost 80 per cent. I’m proud that nine out of 10 UEA undergraduates currently come from state schools and that about 40 per cent of UEA students come from families who have not been to university before.
We use 25 per cent of the higher rate tuition fees to run our school outreach programmes in less privileged areas, to help fund scholarships, and programmes to support people who have the aptitude to go to university to get there and fulfil their potential. This ranges from the 73 undergraduates who started at UEA last month and were each awarded a £3,000 Bright Sparks scholarship for their high levels of academic achievement, through to our Headstart programme for UEA offer holders from less affluent backgrounds that gives them the opportunity to get to know the campus, strengthen their core academic skills and meet other students and academic and support staff before they start.
Last month the thinktank Reform published a report on top universities and social mobility and UEA was placed third for the average annual increase in the proportion of disadvantaged students over the period 2011/12 to 2015/16. Long may we continue down that path.
Tuition fees need to be affordable for our young people but at the same time universities need to be properly funded to enable them to continue to deliver world-class education and research. The level of resource needs to be maintained. So, let’s have the debate about funding higher education but let us take care not to throw proverbial babies out with the bathwater.
David Richardson is vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia.