The University of Cambridge can fund its undergraduate education under the current £9,000 fee system thanks to the performance of its investments and would be “concerned about increases in fees” as a threat to student access, according to its vice-chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Leszek also said that the government’s decision to grant universities permission to raise fees in line with inflation from 2017-18 if they perform well in the teaching excellence framework was “a contentious issue”.
Asked if he was concerned about the spending review – in which the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been asked to model cuts of 25 per cent and 40 per cent to its £13.1 billion budget – Sir Leszek said: “Cuts of this sort cannot be of benefit to the sector. We have to think of the whole higher education sector as one of Britain’s best and most important export industries.”
The Cambridge vice-chancellor’s position on fees stands in contrast to that of his University of Oxford counterpart, Andrew Hamilton. In 2013, Professor Hamilton called for a future government to allow “significantly” variable fees more closely reflecting the “real cost” of undergraduate education – which he put at £16,000 at Oxford.
£9K or £16,700?
Sir Leszek said that Cambridge’s most recent calculation of the real cost of educating its undergraduates was £16,700 per year, on average.
Asked if he would want to see fees rise closer to that figure, he said: “From my point of view, we are able to sustain that on the current fee, based on the performance of our investments. Many other institutions would not be in a position to be able to do so.”
So Cambridge is not lobbying the government for variable fees? “We’re not lobbying the government in relationship to fees at all,” Sir Leszek said. “Other than making the same statement that we have always made, that we are always concerned about increases in fees because of the problems that it would cause to individual students or their desire to access higher education, which is an essential part of a forward-looking economy for the future.”
On the TEF, Sir Leszek said that a greater emphasis on teaching was “something to be welcomed”. But he cautioned: “What I’m not interested in is for the TEF to become some benchmark or…produce uniformity as to what is actually delivered.”
Does the government have the right idea in linking the TEF with a fee rise in line with inflation from 2017-18?
“I think that is quite a contentious issue to begin with,” he replied. “For me, in my own scientific background, I would usually like to pilot something before you necessarily draw conclusions.”
Sir Leszek said that there were benefits to the student and the state from individuals entering higher education, and that the judgement on the balance of contribution between students and the state needs to be “a political one”.
He added: “Skew it and get that wrong and you could have drastic effects on widening participation or a huge burden to the taxpayer…The problem for me, with the TEF, is if you use an unknown tool to suddenly begin to start skewing that particular equation, which side of that contribution is going to be affected? The student’s ability to pay, or the state’s?”
Sir Leszek also stressed the role that working with benefactors plays in ensuring that Cambridge can “remain very competitive on the global stage”.
Philanthropists “enable our academics to look at whole themes and areas that would not be supported through normal routes that are available through government and other sources – which remain still the bedrock of the activity that we undertake”, he argued.
Sir Leszek, born in Wales to Polish immigrant parents, has made high-profile public comments on what he sees as the benefits to the UK of European Union membership, and of immigration.
Given the lower public profile of some previous Cambridge and Oxford vice-chancellors, has he made a conscious decision to take a more public role?
“On issues such as the EU referendum and on issues such as immigration, these are issues that the body of the university feels very strongly about,” Sir Leszek said.
“What I think is very important in any democratic structure is that leaders of institutions such as Cambridge have to have the courage to speak out on issues of national importance, particularly where they affect [their] institutions.”
Oxbridge an 'awful word', says Sir Leszek
Does Sir Leszek Borysiewicz get frustrated by endless “Oxbridge access” stories in the national press?
“Maybe you’ve just touched, in one word, my biggest frustration with the way the media coverage is,” he replied. “And it’s the awful word ‘Oxbridge’. This is a complete mythology.”
He continued: “There is Oxford University and Cambridge University. And we are distinctive organisations with our own strategies and directions. And yet we’re artificially lumped together in this phraseology.” On access stories in the media, “we can answer more than adequately when they’re specific to us”, he said.