Funding undergraduate education through the current combination of tuition fees and loans is dishonest, unfair, inefficient, unrealistic and damaging to the university. It is dishonest because it promises taxpayers that universities will be funded through graduate debt while promising students that much of that debt will be paid by the taxpayer. It is unfair because in 30 years’ time today’s students will have to pay off as taxpayers what they have failed to repay as graduates. It is inefficient because it requires tomorrow’s taxpayers to repay these debts with interest, and this inefficiency is only exacerbated by selling the student loan book at a discounted price to raise revenue to spend on other things today. It is unrealistic in supposing that the conditions for an efficient market exist in higher education. And it is damaging because attempting to impose a market without these conditions will do far more harm than good.
The only responsible solution is to defuse the debt bomb now by asking today’s taxpayers to make a fair and meaningful contribution to higher education expenses. Labour’s new policy takes a step in the right direction (“Miliband announces £6K tuition fees pledge”, February): it recognises the profound flaws in the current system and proposes to reduce tuition fees and debt by one-third by removing the tax benefits on pension contributions enjoyed by only the very wealthiest members of society. In our view, this proposal does not go far enough, but in reversing the direction of travel it represents a major policy shift that many in the university sector will welcome.
When vice-chancellors, who are mainly concerned with increasing the level and stability of funding for their institutions, criticise these proposals, they do not speak for the academic community as a whole. Many of the lecturers, researchers and students who make up this community welcome the proposed policy shift. The hope is that this is the first step in a fundamental rethinking of current policy by all those political parties with a serious interest in serving the needs of the younger generation and attracting the votes of students, parents, grandparents and taxpayers concerned about the inefficiency and injustice of the current arrangements.
Chair, executive committee
Council for the Defence of British Universities
The coalition government anticipated that most universities would charge about £6,000 a year in tuition fees and that only a few would charge £9,000. Given the complete misreading of how a market works by the government, all universities inevitably charged £9,000 to avoid appearing inferior to their peers. Labour’s proposal would rectify a disgraceful wrong inflicted on students, their parents and the taxpayer by the government. Under it, I will be at least £9,000 better off and will be able to help my child with living costs at university. Hopefully, the funding available by reducing top-rate tax relief on pension contributions will not mean that vice-chancellors continue to complain about the policy.