Our resolutions this new year should be to challenge some of higher education's sacred cows.
Free higher education: I fully endorse the principle that higher education should be free at the point of delivery but it is time to apply it universally. "Free higher education" has been used to support an elite, full-time system for particularly youthful sections of society. Distinctions between full and part-time students are rapidly being eroded. Many full-time students engage in paid employment in term time, to try to minimise the size of their debts and to survive. Henceforward we should include all students in a mass, rather than an elite, sector.
Grants and Loans: The debacle of the administration of the student loans system should not obscure the underlying poverty of students. Full-time students would be better off as registered unemployed. This is a terrible indictment of Government policy for investing in the knowledge society. Investment in higher education brings substantial benefits for individuals, employers and society as a whole. Each should help repay that investment.
We should replace the present system of individuated loans, which discourage widening participation. Instead we should argue for a graduate tax, to be paid through the National Insurance system by all graduates (not just the new ones.) Whenever in paid employment, and earning above a agreed threshold salary level, each graduate should pay an additional half per cent National Insurance contribution matched by employers in recognition of the benefits they derive from higher education. This should avoid the drawbacks of personalised loans, apply to all graduates regardless of their mode of attendance, and be efficient to administer.
Teaching versus research: We should recognise openly that research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England is used to support teaching infrastructure, staff, buildings and facilities. Funding methodology actively discourages diversity in the sector, particularly penalising institutions which primarily focus on teaching, learning and associated scholarship.
We should argue for infrastructure support for all institutions, which they can invest in teaching and learning, research or some combination. Specific research monies can then be competed for from the research councils.
The level playing-field: Higher education institutions are constantly told that we now operate on a level playing-field. The stark realities of historic and current wealth and poverty between individual institutions are plain for all to see as is their potential to raise additional capital and revenue. If we accept it is now a level playing field I want to know when half-time is and the teams change ends.
Private education ends at 18: I would also argue that those who pay for the private schooling of their offspring should also pay for their higher education. I have never understood why those who buy the privileges associated with private schooling, including much enhanced chances of access to higher education, should not be required to pay for their offspring's university education, both tuition and maintenance. No doubt the tax-advantageous schemes for paying school fees can be extended to university level.
Well, it is a start. A happy New Year to you all.
Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.