Is your goose cooked?

...and other quandaries to mull over. Malcolm Gillies takes the temperature

December 23, 2010

Christmas comes but once a year. Amid the jingle bells and Santas, it is a time when the fault lines of families are exposed. Old wounds are scratched; sibling rivalries are refreshed. So, what better than five quandaries to get the argumentative juices flowing across the dinner table this midwinter?

Quandary 1: Fees. What now is the moral basis for charging international students higher tuition fees than domestic students? The basis for these different rates used to be that the government considerably subsidised UK/European Union citizens, but not the rest. The UK/EU undergraduate student never saw the full cost of their education. But now that most students will pay that "full cost" and government's main role is as a loan facility, what is our basis for charging international students more? When is full-cost fuller-cost?

The Prime Minister bumped into this quandary recently when speaking to students in China in November. Out of the blue he suggested that, in future, tuition fees for them in the UK should be lower. In fact, he confessed that in the past, fees charged to foreign students had been "pushed up as a way of keeping them down for our domestic students".

Quandary 2: Research. Should research be cross-subsidised by student tuition revenue? Of course it has been so, silently, for years, but now the cross-subsidy is blatant. At a time when students may be taking out loans of up to £9,000 a year for tuition alone, is it acceptable for that to include a research premium to compensate for the slow erosion in research funds from the government?

The chair of University College London's council, Sir Stephen Wall, clearly thinks it is OK. He fell rather hard upon the horns of this dilemma late last month ("Research funding 'black hole'? Fill it with teaching cash", Times Higher Education, 9 December) and received a resounding rebuff both from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the National Union of Students. But was Sir Stephen's crime simply that he elucidated the way it will be at UCL and at other "ambitious" research-intensives?

Quandary 3: Governance. Speaking of chairs behaving badly, who should now be on our governing bodies? As we have moved away from congregational to tighter, more responsible councils, it was the business community that was meant to be supplying the know-how. Richard Lambert, the CBI director-general, laid down such an influential governance blueprint in 2003 in his review of business and university collaboration.

But business is nowhere to be seen in the David Willetts/Vince Cable proposals. It neither contributes to the cost of students' education nor is it asked to contribute any more to research. Business' role is, as Mr Cable explained on 15 July, "to employ people and lead the recovery of the economy". No more, no less. So why should our councils be stuffed full of business people?

As government bows out of the subsidy game (and business was never really in it), the majority stakeholder in our university system is seen unequivocally to be the new funding agent, the student. Therefore, why should the students, eventually footing the majority of institutional bills, now not be better represented on governing bodies? "No taxation without representation" was a claim unwisely overlooked some centuries ago by the British state.

Or is it, as in the US, to the alumni that we should now look? After all, our UK/EU students only begin their repayments when they become alumni. Are they then the best trustees through their long-term financial stake in their alma mater?

Quandary 4: The public. What do the words "public" and "private" mean any more in UK higher education? My university, among its Institutional Values for 2010-13, talks of being "a proud member of public higher education". That comes under the "Value" heading of "Collaboration". But the public has deserted us! Where is the public's stake if you are, as a private individual, incurring debt at 100 per cent of the tuition cost?

The answer technically lies in the access that UK/EU students have to the government-regulated student finance system, and for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students, access to partial institutional support. But the quandary remains of what we have now become. "Autonomous" just won't wash when you aren't.

Quandary 5: Policy. How do you remedy hopeless public policy? By now it is clear that the calculations used in the Browne Review were inappropriate and naive, if not just plain wrong. But at least Lord Browne's scheme had some integrity, and the theoretical reasons for an uncapped system were sound, as he has again recently reminded us.

Now, after numerous political compromises, we have the basis of a system that is neither fish nor fowl: a system potentially as unresponsive to markets as our sectoral pension schemes, with impossible choices for many universities and individual students. The editorial of the International Herald Tribune on 13 December concluded that the tripling of British university tuition fees was "bad public policy, both myopic and unfair...This new policy is an utter failure."

Some of these failures might be offset in next spring's White Paper, but meanwhile the binary divide has been reborn. Britain, already in the bottom quarter of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development table of social equality, looks like sliding further down. What to do?

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