'Data gap should put paid to higher fees'

It would be wrong to raise costs when students can't make informed choices, expert tells John Gill

January 8, 2009

Students do not have enough information to exercise full consumer choice when they pick a university or course, so they must not be forced to pay the "exorbitant" fees of their counterparts in the US, a conference is to be told.

At a seminar next week, Roger Brown, professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University, will argue that the marketisation of the sector must be reined in rather than allowed to expand through an increase or removal of the current £3,145 cap on student tuition fees.

Speaking ahead of the joint Higher Education Policy Institute-Times Higher Education event, he said: "Whatever issue you look at, whether it is funding, quality assurance or whatever, the central strategic issue is the degree of further marketisation that can occur in the system.

"If the fee cap were to be lifted, that would increase marketisation.

"In thinking about that, we should be drawing not only on the theoretical economic literature, but also on the experience of the major comparable systems that have already gone further than we have, notably the US."

Arguing for a more balanced approach in the UK, Professor Brown said that although there had been benefits from marketisation in the US, there were also detriments such as a greater stratification of the system, both institutionally and socially.

He said: "I simply do not think that we will ever have the kind of information that will enable students to choose in advance what the most suitable course and university is.

"For that reason, we have to maintain a balance and have to maintain grants to institutions alongside student fees as the main means of funding teaching."

At the seminar, Professor Brown will speak alongside Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics. Professor Barr will argue, in contrast to Professor Brown, that there is already sufficient data available for students to make an informed choice and that even more information could be provided.

On the issue of marketisation, he said: "The question is the extent to which policy should foster competition, the balance between fees and block grant and so on. I am very pragmatic, and I think that there's scope for the system to be somewhat more competitive than it is now.

"I don't mean red in tooth and claw, law of the jungle competition - I'm not a market zealot - but I think market forces are useful and help the student.

"I would argue for more competition, but also better information, including more powerful quality assurance than we have now."

Professor Brown added: "No one believes in pure markets, and no one wants to go back to the kind of system we have had before, but what kind of modified market do we want?

"That is the $64,000 question. If you can provide such information, there is no limit - you could put all the money for teaching through the student.

"But if you can't, there is no argument for going any further than we currently have."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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