In a letter to ministers, the higher education body GuildHE raises a series of questions that it says need answering, and warns against making a “costly and ill-advised mistake”.
The letter has been made public today, hours before Chancellor George Osborne unveils the swingeing cuts to be made in the CSR period, which runs from 2011-12 to 2014-15.
Ruth Farwell and Andy Westwood, GuildHE’s chair and chief executive respectively, say that Lord Browne’s proposals for a market in fees in which universities compete for students is “based fundamentally on the principle that student choices should shape the future of higher education”.
They caution that such a vision “depends critically on a one-dimensional view of students in England and their geographical mobility”.
In fact, the letter says, the view of students as school-leavers planning to move away from home to attend university is outdated, with such students “an increasing minority”.
The review’s proposals do little to secure the future of good locally based provision, it continues, which is “the only real choice that many have”.
In this context, GuildHE says, the review’s market-based proposals could do severe damage to efforts to widen access to higher education, as “we simply cannot know the impact of the proposals on participation levels among less well-off students”.
Professor Farwell and Mr Westwood also address the view that the costs of higher education should be borne by those who most benefit from them, noting that “Browne and the CSR’s position appears to be that graduates capture most of the economic benefits and, therefore, should pay the most for it”.
They disagree, arguing instead that there are three beneficiaries – the graduate, the economy and society as a whole – and all should pay their share.
“Substituting state income with graduate income is not appropriate or ideologically fair,” they say in the letter, which is addressed to ministers including business secretary Vince Cable, universities minister David Willetts and Mr Osborne.
“Anything with too much weight on one beneficiary (ie, Browne’s on the graduate) may be better affordable in the current climate, but is unfair and unprincipled in the longer term,” the letter says.
Among other points covered is a plea for any change to be introduced “at a practical pace”.
The GuildHE letter warns that if the implementation of any new system is rushed through, “institutions and individuals may find the transitional period more life-threatening than the eventual market-oriented system that Browne and ministers desire”.