Ministers won't say the F-word - it's up to us to make the case for fees

Universities must tell the public why higher top-ups are needed because the lily-livered Government will not, Anna Fazackerley says

February 26, 2009

A government-commissioned report on university top-up fees last week told us what we all suspected it would tell us: they need to go up.

But those who imagine that the Government is moving its tanks into position and that the battle to raise fees is about to begin will be sorely disappointed.

Sensible though it may be, the Chisholm review is little more than a political diversion.

Sir John Chisholm has told us that universities need more cash and that some of it must come from the students who benefit from higher education, but the Government has been at pains to stress that this is his private view.

Sir John's report is just one of a staggering 17 independent mini-reviews on higher education commissioned by the Government, all designed to raise lots of knotty questions (not answers) and to make sure that everybody is so busy reviewing things that we hardly notice that the one review that matters - the review that decides whether we raise the £3,000 limit on top-up fees or not - does not seem to be happening.

A 2009 review of the cap was part of the deal when top-up fees finally made it on to the statute books in 2004. Yet the Government remembers the horribly bloody nose it received when it raised this debate the first time around, and it does not trust its own MPs. The simple truth is that it has absolutely no intention of doing any serious talking about fees with a general election looming on the horizon.

This process of examining all the issues facing higher education - and perhaps even throwing in a White Paper for good measure - is all about filling in time. Before the year is out, the politicians will stick to the terms of the agreement and announce a fees review (quietly). But they will make darned sure that it does not reach anywhere near centre stage before the Prime Minister goes to the country.

This is a gloomy realisation for vice-chancellors who are bracing themselves for painful cuts in government funding, as well as potential losses of other streams of revenue, from business to international students.

Last year, the signs in Westminster were relatively favourable. Rumour had it that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was sounding out certain university heads about a cap of £4,500. The common feeling was that this was not enough, but it was a start.

That was then. Now, the fees ball has been kicked over the high wall and into the big nettle patch on the other side of the playground. Does this mean that universities should drop the fees issue? Certainly not. If we really are interested in the future success of our higher education system, we need to have a serious and difficult discussion about funding. This means the sector facing a few home truths.

First, back in 2003 and 2004, the sector's case for raising fees was woolly. In particular, it failed in its attempts to make the public understand the crucial fact that students would not pay fees upfront. Institutions that want the freedom to charge higher fees should learn from this. Rather than waiting for politicians and the public to decide, universities need to sort out exactly what they are asking for.

Second, if universities want students and parents to contribute to the costs of higher education, they need to demonstrate more clearly that the quality of that education will improve as a result of this investment. If students see themselves as consumers purchasing a service, the sector needs to be a lot more transparent about exactly what it is offering.

Linked to this, from the Treasury's perspective, the Government sustained considerable damage pushing fees through, and very soon afterwards a rather large slug of the cash from fees was swallowed up by the national pay deal. I am not saying that academic salaries did not need addressing, rather that there is an image issue here that universities should at least be aware of.

Finally, there needs to be a continued effort to consider how higher fees will affect access. It is certainly positive that application levels have remained healthy since the introduction of top-up fees. Indeed, the biggest complaint in the sector right now is that institutions cannot expand as much as they want to.

However, this argument has not yet been won. And unless universities can show that they will continue to admit the best people for their courses regardless of their ability to pay, any campaign to raise fees will fall at the first hurdle.

There is much to talk about. It is a predictable scandal that the Government is too lily-livered to join in.

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