A system of fees and bursaries will lead to greater autonomy and efficiency, says Bruce Charlton
Universities are in a mess. And the blame lies firmly at the door of government policy, which has incrementally transformed the system of higher education into a Soviet-style nightmare of minutely detailed central planning. The predictable consequences are cumulative inefficiency leading to declining effectiveness. Half the universities - including the best - are in deficit, and targets for increased participation remain elusive.
Yet education is at the heart of prime minister Tony Blair's social modernisation programme: modern societies depend on continual economic growth, and this in turn depends on continual cognitive growth.
So on the one hand, state involvement in education is inevitable and desirable, but on the other, it has become clear that present methods will not deliver.
Universities are, of course, already private corporations in the legal sense - but such is their dependence on state funding, particularly in the light of their recent expansion, that the central administration of each institution functions more like a civil service outpost than an autonomous executive. This link must be broken by ensuring that funding for teaching comes mainly via student fees. By cutting the purse strings, central government will also be cutting the apron strings - allowing universities to grow up and to leave behind their enforced adolescent status of whining dependence.
Many students would pay full fees, and these would also fund scholarships for the particularly bright or needy. The government should exert its control over this system indirectly by means of influencing student choice, primarily through the mechanism of student bursaries.
Bursaries would have two main purposes. The first - that would probably make up the bulk of government support - would be directed at ensuring that enough people went through the higher education system to satisfy the need for a more highly skilled workforce. The future degree is likely to be a generic intellectual education that acts as the pre-requisite for entry to a wide range of skilled jobs in (broadly speaking) the middle-management tier.
Most government undergraduate bursaries would therefore be directed at poorer students or those from non-academic backgrounds, who would not otherwise be able or motivated to continue their education beyond school.
A supplementary purpose of government intervention would be to ensure an adequate supply of specialised personnel of sufficient calibre in areas that are considered to be vital to the national interest. Such qualifications are increasingly likely to be at the postgraduate level.
Bursaries would need potentially to cover fees and living expenses at a cheap university, and (at least) most of the fees at an expensive one - we are talking about sums of £10,000 to £15,000 per student.
Under such a system, universities would be autonomous institutions pursuing a variety of self-defined missions, and charging a range of fees to support their activities. As there is in most areas of life, from soccer to symphony orchestras, there would be competition on the basis of cost versus quality. Some universities would charge high fees - about £10,000 a year - and would need to convince students that their educational experience and/or degree qualification was prestigious enough to be worth the extra money. Others would charge lower fees - about £5,000 - and offer a no-frills education leading to a useful qualification. And some, perhaps most, would offer mixtures and intermediate versions of these.
Educational standards would be driven primarily by student choice, on the basis that people will be reluctant to invest three years of their lives and (in most cases) large amounts of money for a poor educational experience leading to a worthless qualification. The state's role will merely be to set a minimum standard for those institutions for which bursaries are useable. A slimline inspectorate performing pass/fail audits would easily be able to monitor such a simple quality assurance system.
I believe that the UK system of higher education will, sooner or later, be forced into something resembling the above configuration. Because the stakes are high, the cost of higher education failure is progressive national decline.
Bruce Charlton is reader in evolutionary psychiatry at the department of psychology, Newcastle University.