Fees, fairness and free markets 2

January 14, 2005

Readers may recall the minor spat during the top-up fees debate over whether universities would be obliged to redirect a third of their extra fee income into student bursaries to improve access.

The Government said that it really had in mind only £300, and that is indeed the minimum required. But such is the power of Government-by-hint, and such the political weakness of higher education, that institutions are falling over themselves to submit plans to the Office for Fair Access that will offer up to a third of the extra fee income in "access measures" ("Offa signals bursary battle", January 7).

After all the fuss over £3,000 (£1,850 above the current Pounds 1,150), what such institutions will actually get is only £1,200 a year extra per undergraduate to spend on improved teaching, academic pay and infrastructure - an amount that will by 2009-10 barely restore the unit of resource to where it was when new Labour came to power.

The 20-25 per cent of "poor" kids at elite universities will get grants of up to £4,000 a year; the 75-80 per cent of equally "poor" kids at institutions less favoured in the social recruitment mix will get nowhere near as much.

The Government said that it wanted to improve higher education's finances but opted for fees of £3,000 rather than the £5,000 recommended by the Select Committee on Education. It now compounds the error by "forcing" many universities to give away up to a third of this new money.

It is entirely laudable to fund students from low-income families generously. That is the task of Government. It is entirely stupid to mix that issue with properly funding universities, and for institutions to be left to do the job of the Government by adequately financing students.

Roll on the General Agreement on Trade in Services and the arrival of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford (and even Kaplan and Phoenix) in the form of UK campuses, and hopefully the retreat of Government in so incompetently controlling higher education as "the last nationalised industry" - the market could do no worse a job.

David Palfreyman
New College, Oxford University

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