Leader: There's no skirting the fees debate

Politicians must end their coyness about tuition charges and face facts - they may be unpopular but they are necessary

四月 3, 2008

Nobody seems to want to talk about tuition fees. This is not surprising. Neither the Government nor the Opposition has anything to gain by talking about an issue that is divisive for both camps and that does not have to be resolved until after the next election. But if 18 months or two years is an eternity in politics, it is a blink of an eye to universities contemplating demographic horizons a decade and more from now. Fees, or more precisely the fee cap and to what level it will be lifted or abolished altogether, must be part of their calculations and conversations.

We are of course talking about English fees. The Welsh have balked at the prospect of higher fees and rediscovered a distinctly un-Blairite reverse gear, and the Scottish Government has decided to make higher education free. It has also declined to fund it in the manner to which it had become accustomed while holding fast to its determination that universities are central to its vision for a knowledge economy. If alchemy were to reappear as a subject for serious study one would know where to look.

History, however, and recent history at that, might be a more appropriate discipline. Those who fear the ramifications of an unregulated market naturally point to the exorbitant fees faced by students in the US. They rarely look closer to home. In 1996 the Irish abolished tuition fees. The decision was popular with the electorate but in the long term disastrous for institutions: high staff/student ratios, crumbling infrastructure and budgets overly dependent on the health of central government finances. And all this in an economy that would make Surrey's look flaccid. Now universities, echoed by some of the architects of the original abolition, want fees back on the agenda. Unfortunately for them, Dublin seems more perturbed by the prospect of shrieking middle classes than creaking campuses.

Fear of such cacophony helps to explain coyness over the cap at Westminster. This is ironic because while the worst misgivings of those who opposed tuition fees in the first place have not been realised, fee proponents have by and large tended to excuse rather than promote them. That is a mistake. Fees are equitable and practical. They may not be palatable, but that is something else entirely. The evidence does not suggest that they have dented demand from students - despite the National Union of Students conducting what must amount to the biggest defence of middle-class privilege since Mrs Thatcher's campaign to scrap rates. Mixing the issue of fees with widening access is disingenuous. The Irish experience suggests that working-class participation has not markedly improved proportionally since fees were abolished. As in the UK, the biggest hurdles lie earlier on in the education system.

Fees are never going to be popular. Large fees even less so. And they are never going to be the whole answer to a complex funding question. But it is right that those who personally benefit should pay when they are able and that those who do not should not be taxed for someone else's privilege. The fees review should consider a few essentials. The new regime should be accompanied by subsidy for those who need it and not larded with overly generous interest rates for those who do not. It should bring in sufficient money to make the whole exercise worthwhile. It should be durable and capable of adaptation, so bankrupting the Treasury or graduates with a cap-less option would not be wise. It should give universities more freedom to manoeuvre. And it should not be confused with the widening access problem. A solution to that lies far beyond 2009.



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