Letter: The fifth option

March 2, 2001

Sir William Taylor has not considered a fifth, strong, option - perhaps because it is strong ("Graduates' levy may fill £1bn gap"; Analysis, THES, February 23). It would require the sector to remember that it has something of real value to offer, namely higher education and research. Thus the fifth option is to fight back rather than lie back.

It might take a little courage but Universities UK could agree (admittedly a novelty) to turn back to the funding councils and set their own price for teaching and research. Make the calculation: to supply the range and quality of teaching, and the research to foster and support subject development. If the funding councils or the government ignore the invoice, turn the students away. Admit only the numbers that present income could pay for. In practice, that would mean few students starting in the autumn.

All research assessment exercise and Quality Assurance Agency-related work stops: the government gets only what it pays for.

In short, universities should support the professional associations and the National Union of Students and bring the government to the obvious conclusion that taxation is the only means for supporting a genuinely open, expanding and effective system. Tinkering by means of hidden taxation and inappropriate and disingenuous market-speak means only a gradually shrinking sector, with higher learning becoming, once more, the preserve of the rich.

If a degree increases one's earning potential, then it also increases one's tax contribution. The average graduate would pay back her fees and maintenance within a few years and then carry on paying higher tax for the rest of her life. That is, of course, to ignore the increased contribution she will be able to make to her employer and the country as a result of her higher learning: the reason she is supposed to gain a higher wage in the first place!

The fee and loan scam was Labour's desperate attempt to avoid a wholly necessary increase in taxation, and by it they have brought about the demoralisation and financial ruin of the sector. The Tory Party offers a farcical endowment policy that would divide and destroy the sector with the same ultimate effect as top-up fees: patronise a small number of poor people and keep the best education, jobs and so on for a narrow group between the middle and top earners in society.

A. J. Morgan

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