Please fund us properly, minister 1

December 19, 2003

In his attacks on "elite" universities for perpetuating social divisions, higher education minister Alan Johnson has said he wished he had gone to university instead of leaving school at 15. Why didn't he?

Was it because of cost? It was easier then with no fees and a maintenance grant. Perhaps it was because his school did not motivate him? A failing school is not the fault of universities. Perhaps it was the loss of his parents? Parenting is often the source of off-springs' achievement and underachievement. Perhaps it was because he did not show academic potential? A truly terrifying thought for the minister for higher education.

It is time that politicians accepted their responsibility for dealing with the economic and social divides in our society (Soapbox, THES , December 5) instead of spuriously erecting smokescreens such as attacks on universities that have responded so magnificently to the changes of the past 40 years.

One constant under Conservative and Labour administrations is the erosion of state funding per student these past 20 years. The accumulated reduction is nearly £6,000 a year. A £3,000 fee will not close this gap.

No wonder almost every university has declared it will charge the maximum for all courses.

The pro-fee lobby argues that graduates benefit from increased earnings and hence should make a contribution. But they already do. The higher income tax paid on their salaries repays the revenue in ten years. Where else can you get a 10 per cent return for your investment? Students already pay an undergraduate tax because up-front fees were removed from the government grant and the money used to fund its policies.

Student indebtedness is a worrying trend. The fee "tax" has risen by 12.5 per cent in line with inflation since it was introduced. But student expenditure on socialising, including mobile phones, has risen nearly 100 per cent. Perhaps there is no single solution to the debt problem.

The central problem is university underfunding, and the debate does not address this. There may come a time when everyone who wishes to can go to an "elite" university. If, when they get there, they find nothing more than a mediocre examination mill, will it have been worth it? We need proper funding coupled with a needs-blind admissions system. If we concentrate on that, we have made progress. But quality will cost.

Maxwell Irvine
Former vice-chancellor
Glasgow University

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