More give, less take

February 25, 2000

The Brits could learn much from the US when it comes to financing higher education, says Alan Ryan

There have been two connected contradictions at the heart of government education policy, perhaps since the early 1960s, certainly since 1992, and visibly since the publication of the Dearing report.

First is the contradiction between the need for diverse provision at the post-16 and post-18 levels and the desire by the Treasury and Department for Education and Employment to run a single monolithic system.

The second contradiction manifests itself in the desire to preserve expensive excellence while simultaneously funding more places on the cheap, and between the desire to keep access to higher education open to the badly off and relieving the tax burden on middle and low-income voters.

Until recently, the uniformitarian has been well ahead of the pluralist. Education secretary David Blunkett has devoted a lot of effort to denying the obvious - that the new fees regime strikes many people as inadequate and unjust, that different universities not only teach different things to different sorts of students, but make different degrees of difference to their students' future average incomes, and that the search for quality assurance is so ham-fisted that it actually threatens quality.

The use of the term "elite" to mean anything from "high-grade" to "revoltingly snobbish" has been perhaps the greatest hindrance to clear thought. It is true that "elite universities", in the sense of those that can demand the highest grades at A level, draw their students disproportionately from an "elite" of moderately well-to-do families.

But four years ago, only 16 students from manual working-class backgrounds secured three A grades at A level. This suggests that the old problem of capturing the imagination and energy of bright children from poorer backgrounds remains unsolved.

At last there are signs that a sense of reality is replacing wishful thinking in the DFEE and elsewhere. The most welcome feature of Mr Blunkett's Greenwich University speech on February 15 is that he acknowledged that diversity really means diversity.

For universities such as Oxford, the most important implication is the suggestion that the lid is to be cautiously lifted on tuition fees. But although uncapping is needed by the dozen or so universities that absorb the "triple-A" applicants, new universities whose students are both hard up and possess few formal qualifications also need resources.

If we are to lift the lid on tuition fees, realism is needed all round. Students must forget the mantra of "free" higher education. Justice demands that those who get most out of it should contribute most towards it via a graduate tax.

In fact the loans regime with income contingent, zero-real-interest "loans" is already almost indistinguishable from "free" at the point of use, tax surcharge to recover the cost later.

If the government was less frightened of the term "tax", it could explain this.

Since most parents who can afford to chip in for their children's education do so, there must be a corresponding element of outright gift for the less well-off - the means-tested state studentship.

Conversely, the best-off families ought to contribute more than they do and ought to be induced to do it sooner rather than later with discounts for upfront payment.

What the United States has that we do not is the culture of corporate giving - we manage Pounds 5 for every Pounds 100 in the US - and the willingness to borrow when young and donate when older. The government has made a start on making philanthropy tax-efficient but more could be done.

Still, I do not want to end on a grudging note. The logjam really does seem to have broken.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford University.

Should the government lift the lid on tuition fees?

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