Have you nothing to say about the cost and value of what you provide?

Anna Fazackerley wonders why vice-chancellors are so quiet about the future of tuition fees - and what students should expect for their money

February 4, 2010

Of course we need to talk about fees," the vice-chancellors snort. "It's a disaster out there. Lord Mandelson is taking a machete to our funding. Business cash is down. Our alumni don't answer the calls of our fundraisers. Of course we need to talk about fees!

"But ... I'm not sure I'm the right man for the job. Have you tried that nice chap in the South West?"

Privately, many universities from different parts of the sector are convinced that tuition fees need to go up if quality is to be maintained. Many believe that if the cap doesn't rise, they will struggle to keep their heads above water. University heads who didn't take the job in order to manage a period of decline are understandably gloomy. Yet the silence on the questions that matter remains deafening.

The question of what the additional money from top-up fees has been spent on is a case in point. Of course, this income doesn't arrive in a neatly hypothecated pot, so it is hard to deliver a tidy list of returns. And naturally, vice-chancellors have dreaded revealing how much cash has been hoovered up by staff pay rises, lest this prompt a collective sucking-in of breath among Treasury officials.

But the silence has done universities no favours. It was unwise to wait for Lord Browne of Madingley and the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance to ask what was going on before they started thinking about being transparent.

Instead of hoping that the question would go away, universities and mission groups should have long ago started to explain to students, parents and politicians that they have been busy ploughing money into improving the student experience. They should have been loudly pointing out that pay is a very real part of that experience; that academics have been underpaid for years, and if they hadn't addressed this, many of their best brains would have been on the next flight to the US.

Perhaps part of the problem is that some v-cs believe they shouldn't have to concern themselves with the student experience. Politicians from all parties seem to be obsessed with the subject, but university leaders hope that this is a silly short-lived fad and that soon everyone can go back to concentrating on the serious business of research. They are wrong.

It is right that graduates should contribute towards some of the costs of the higher education they benefit from. Yet students have a right to expect that universities are investing in them in return. They have the right to ask where they may end up after studying a particular course, and how much they could earn. They have a right to know whether they will spend their time exchanging ideas in small seminars led by a professor at the top of her game, or squashed into a lecture theatre with 300 other students straining to hear the PhD student at the front. In short, they have a right to know what to expect.

Then there is the sticky question of how to raise tuition fees, if indeed that is the sensible thing to do. Many universities are quietly totting up just how much they need to charge. Yet how many are coming forward with clear plans for how to make this possible? The plain truth is that the student support system is already taking a hefty swipe at the Treasury balance sheet, and without some radical (and politically difficult) reform, any rise in fees would be prohibitively expensive. In other words, without some realistic alternatives, there is no point in calculating how to spend the money. There simply won't be any extra.

But here is the truly bewildering part. Our universities are packed full of clever people who are paid to spend their lives answering difficult questions and thinking clever things. Yet you can count the number of possible funding solutions that are being mulled over in the public domain on the fingers of one hand that has been involved in a particularly nasty accident with a threshing machine.

The time for prevarication is over. We need an open, detailed discussion about what tuition fees have meant thus far, and what should happen to them in the future. This means debating what institutions need and what the Government, students and parents expect them to deliver in return. It is time for all universities to join in. We don't need just one head above the parapet on fees. We need many.

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