How are sound degrees to be paid for?

January 6, 1995

The confidence of THES readers in the standard of British degrees has plummeted in the past two years. And our readers are the group best placed to know. Of course, replies to this kind of readers' survey (page 5) cannot carry the same weight as would a properly balanced opinion survey: those answering are a self-selected group. None the less, the same question to the same (or in fact rather smaller readership) two years ago produced a greater show of confidence.

At the same time, confidence in the use-fullness of the present quality assurance arrangements in higher education has also fallen off sharply. Clearly, in the eyes of the professionals, it is not serving to protect higher education from deterioration.

What is needed, of course, is money -- more money to pay people better, more money for books, new technology, equipment, more money to hire more people.

But where is it to come from? Readers who responded to our survey remain as hostile as two years ago to the notion that the better-off should contribute to the cost of tuition. In taking this view they appear to be increasingly out of line with public opinion.

We commissioned MORI to ask a similar question of the general public. That survey shows that a substantial majority of the public now agree that the better-off should contribute to tuition costs -- though a little strand of self-interest is revealed in that the better-off groups who overwhelmingly dominate higher education are somewhat less willing to fork out than others.

Questions about paying for higher education were asked of the general public by MORI in 1993 for The THES and in 1991 for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. The questions were more detailed and are not directly comparable with these most recent ones. However there does seem to be some ground for thinking that public opinion has shifted further in favour of some payment for tuition in the last year.

Looking at all the questions we have asked, including one asked by MORI for the first time concerning public attitudes to student debt, it seems that public and even parental resistance to families paying for tuition may be waning in the face of the appalling publicity which has recently surrounded student loans It was parents' complaints which defeated the late Keith Joseph's proposal to reintroduce the means test for tuition in 1983 (it was removed only in 1977) and swung the Conservative party towards placing the burden for cost sharing on students through loans instead. Maybe a return to family means testing would now be more acceptable, particularly if loans were available to bail out those whose families reneged.

This then is the climate in which the Labour party is trying to forge its new policy. It is a hideously difficult problem for them and they deserve congratulations for facing it at last. It is more than the Government has dared.

David Blunkett and his team will need support and help as they try to forge a credible and affordable policy for improving education right across the board starting with nursery education. They are, of course, beset by strident groups with strong opinions and vested interests. Within the Labour camp there are those, including the Labour-controlled National Union of Students, who are indissolubly wedded to free education for all at all levels.

But there are also radicals flirting with views much nearer to those of the World Bank, which recently argued that there can never be enough education for enough people unless large swathes of it are provided and paid for privately so that the unit cost to the taxpayer falls -- and incidentally education becomes a wealth-generating industry. There are those who favour progressive taxation to pay for all the goodies desired. There are those who point out that the public consistently fails to vote for parties which espouse such policies. There are those eager to explore hypothecated taxation as a means of squaring the circle.

Recent articles and interviews with Mr Blunkett suggest that he would like to see participation in higher education rise to 40 per cent; that meeting the cost is not top of his spending priorities and that he is therefore willing to consider a graduate tax as one possible way of meeting the bills. There have been hasty moves by the party to suggest that such a tax is only one of that old favourite "a range of options" under discussion. There have been firm statements that "fees" are not on the agenda, pledges which on investigation appear to apply only to "top-up" fees, the only kind which universities could impose unilaterally regardless of the politicians. There are clearly arguments between education and Treasury teams over what is and is not possible.

A graduate tax will be one of the notions around which such arguments rage. It looks superficially beguiling. Our polls have shown it to be the favoured option among those who think students should make some contribution. The NUS has even given the idea house room in the recent past and Mike Fitzgerald argues for it on page 12.

Its attraction is that, by adding a percentage to every graduate's income tax, a progressive element would be built in and the numbers paying would be so large that the burden would be spread thinly.

But things are not so simple. What is a graduate? Does an American degree count? Does an HND? Does a PhD pay double? Does every graduate pay even if they paid for their own tuition at the time because they are too old (pre-1962 graduates) to have got a mandatory grant; because their families were too rich to qualify on means test (pre-1978 graduates); or because they studied part-time (like Open University or Birkbeck graduates)?

Even if such issues could be resolved there remain uncomfortable aspects to such a proposal. Such a premium would be a tax not on income but on knowledge, a very real disincentive to gaining higher education qualifications when paid work beckons instead. It would also provide the Treasury but not higher education with additional revenue. There would be no way to ensure they spent the money raised on either students or higher education institutions with so many other good and clamourous causes.

With each of the options Labour is likely to study there will be a similar set of disadvantages, perhaps not so serious as for a graduate tax but certainly not politically enticing. The long travails of the party as they grapple with this matter are honourable but likely to be inconclusive, divisive and unsatisfactory to all concerned.

It would be charitable of higher education therefore to let them off the hook by simply introducing charges for full-time students along the same sort of lines as they now charge part-timers. All political parties would then be faced with a much more tractable problem: how to ensure that the "right" groups of students (depending on the party's policy priorities) were enabled to meet the fees demanded.

Our current set of polls suggest that the public would wear it. The trouble is they also suggest that higher education staff would not.

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