Culture of consumerism rather than participation

January 26, 1996

Student leaders from leading research universities spell out why they think top-up fees are a disaster.

The draconian cuts now facing higher education are making the once shunned concept of top-up fees increasingly attractive to universities. It appears to some administrators that fees are the only route out of the quagmire of declining quality in United Kingdom institutions. The debate has already been restricted, it seems, to "fees and quality" versus "anything else and irreparable damage". However, top-up fees are little more than a very short-term solution to the funding deficit and such fees may prove to be the source of irreparable damage.

The most serious argument against the imposition of top-up fees has always been one of access. If some institutions were able to charge more than others, or some courses carried higher fees than others, it is clear that prospective students would choose courses and/or institutions at least partially on the level of their top-up fee. Scholarships and bursaries may address the problem in part, but they will never eliminate or even minimise it. Such a system would only serve to compound existing divides in our society. Would this not undermine the very purpose of education; that of broadening horizons, intellectual and social? The student movement is unanimous on this issue. Education must be free at the point of entry.

If top-up fees were a registration requirement at the start of each session, the drop-out rate would increase as students faced unforeseen financial difficulties. Student hardship has led to an increase in drop-out rates of 10 per cent this year. In this sort of climate, universities will find it more problematic to plan for the medium-term. Examiners might even be placed under pressure not to fail students where budgets were based on enrolments. Rising levels of student hardship are also having a detrimental effect on applications (down 1 to 1.5 per cent this year) and on the academic performance of those students who manage to stay on. Top-up fees would compound these alarming trends. A spokesperson for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, quoted in The Independent of January 17, said: "Financial hardship and academic failure are often connected. Students fail their courses for economic reasons."

The current system is divided between research-led institutions and those more dependent on teaching. Increased segmentation would be inequitable and detrimental to the sector. All universities must combine teaching and research. The imposition of differential top-up fees would further deprive many institutions of investment, much needed to develop a culture of research and improve teaching quality. Research-led institutions must maintain a teaching base to train the academics of tomorrow.

The charging of differential top-up fees evidently implies that financial resources will be concentrated in those areas where higher fees can be levied. Courses and institutions that are historically successful will maintain their resource base while new or failing courses will be starved of the cash necessary for consolidation and improvement. Within universities where cross-subsidy occurs, the pressure to achieve immediate results will be enhanced, thereby encouraging a culture of short-termism.

The paying student will increasingly be regarded as a consumer of rather than a participant in his or her education. Student representation enables the institution to construct a pro-active partnership with its students, thereby enhancing quality provision and accountability. The Higher Education Quality Council advocates high levels of student participation in all universities. Top-up fees will undermine progress in this area. It is clear, therefore, that top-up fees will neither maintain nor enhance the quality of higher education. They will also impose further administration costs on universities. Must limited short-term appeal outweigh long-term prospects for improvement? Fees spell disaster. If universities impose fees, what prevents a government that already expects institutions to rely more heavily on the Private Finance Initiative and that imposes further efficiency gains, from using top-up fees as an excuse for further funding cuts? Any solution to the funding crisis must involve the Government, not bypass it.

It is for these reasons that we oppose top-up fees and offer our support in any attempt made by the CVCP to examine and propose alternatives to the current funding crisis.

Kate Hampton, general secretary, LSE Students Union; Simon Webber, general secretary and Richard Stacey, communications officer, University of Manchester Union; Nick Forbes, president, Cambridge University SU; Adam Shapiro, president, Oxford University Student Union; Josh Wong, president, University of Warwick Student Union; Sarah White, president, Imperial College Union; Caroline Ford, external affairs and welfare officer, University College London Union; Emily Baldock, president and Michael Salter, treasurer, Durham Student Union; Madeleine Rinehart, president, Birmingham University Guild of Students; Zoey Heathcote, Edinburgh Students' Association; Sarah Sansom, University of Bristol Union;Nigel Impey, University of Southampton Student Union.

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