Alan Ryan

April 22, 2005

'In a rational world, non traditional students would be able to try a course without getting £8,000 in debt. So why not waive fees for the first term?'

Top-ups may well benefit Oxbridge, but universities taking low-income students will struggle to offer adequate bursaries

Nothing is more disagreeable than people saying, "I told you so." All the same, it is quite hard to share the astonishment of all those backbenchers who have finally worked out what the new £3,000-a-year fee regime is going to mean in practice. A pencil and the back of an envelope would have been enough to work out that if Oxford University divided a third of its some £18 million in extra fee income among about 2,500 low and lowish-income students, it was going to do quite nicely, while Wolverhampton would be very hard-pressed to give more than Charles Clarke's £300 minimum to most of theirs.

Oddly enough, much the same situation holds in the US. Although the "sticker price" for tuition at Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities is close to $30,000 (£16,000) a year, no student from a family earning less than about $40,000 will pay anything for their education - board and lodging included. The reason is not only that Harvard is immensely rich, with an endowment of $23 billion, but that like Oxford and Cambridge it can find few well-qualified low-income students to spend its money on. The same is true of the rest of the Ivy League.

Much as in Britain, it is people in the middle who have the roughest time.

American financial aid runs out quite rapidly once a family earns more than $50,000 a year, so even though something like two thirds of all students at Harvard and Princeton receive some assistance, it is likely to be $20,000 over four years against a bill of $160,000. In Britain, it is people with a family income of little over £30,000 who will have the hardest time - they will get no bursaries and will be left to face the full load of indebtedness for fees and living expenses unaided. Even the people with a little less than £30,000 in family income will not do particularly well.

Could it all have been done differently? We could have gone down the Liberal Democrats' route and stuck an extra 10p on the top rate of tax or introduced a straight graduate tax. We could have had a national bursary scheme, as argued once again by Roger Brown, principal of Southamptom Institute. The arguments against all these are familiar, too. What I am more puzzled by is the unimaginative response to setting fees, and the unwillingness to move down a path already pioneered by the US.

Leaving aside the strange determination of vice-chancellors and students to believe that charging the maximum fee is an indicator of quality - how could it be? - it is puzzling that nobody has thought of charging students more as the product becomes more valuable to them and to society at large.

A student with "non-traditional" qualifications has every reason to wonder whether academic life is for them, whether they can get up to speed, whether the learning style of higher education suits them, whether what they learn will get them a better job. In a rational world, they'd be able to try a course without getting £8,000 in debt for a year's fees and living costs. So why not no fees for the first term or semester?

It will be said, rightly, that institutions that take such students are broke already and in no condition to forgo the fees they can charge. Still, with a bit of common sense from the Office for Fair Access, they could get the cost charged against the obligation to provide bursaries. It will also be said, rightly, that since the fees are not repayable until students have graduated and are earning £15,000 a year, it ought not to matter how much the fees are - though that is a dangerous argument for people to use who campaigned in favour of a £3,000 cap.

But that is where the second puzzling feature of British higher education comes in. Why are we so stationary? Students spend their gap years travelling all over the world and doing everything from herding yaks in the Himalayas to changing nappies in Manhattan. But then they head for a university and expect to stay there for three years. Or, to put it the other way about, if we mind, as we ought to mind, about luring students into higher education in ways that present them with fewer risks of expensive failure, why do we not make more systematic use of the chances that exist for students to start off in one institution and migrate to another when they have had a chance to learn the necessary skills and acquire the appropriate tastes?

There are twice as many third-year students at Berkeley as there are freshers; they have come for the most part from community colleges, where the tuition cost is almost zero. In Britain, students change universities almost always as the result of failure - why shouldn't they move around as the result of success?

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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