More funding or more stress?

October 17, 1997

UNIVERSITIES are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea over the funding crisis. Issues of principle and practicality are vying for central position. The extra Pounds 165 million for universities may alleviate some problems but the inability of the vice chancellors to give a clear, united lead and the lack of clarity about whether higher education will benefit directly from student fee income leaves us swinging in the wind.

Tuition fees may have been debated extensively in the education press but there has been little discussion in the general media. The comparative calm with which the announcement was received in the "outside" world does not mean that it will not prove extremely controversial and unpopular. However, as an issue, it is a slow burner. We will look back in 20 years and recognise it as the major turning point of higher education leading to what John Ashworth has called "a disaffected intellectual class".

First, the student as debtor. Students will be more likely to look for alternatives to a university place, be more likely to drop out and be less likely to enter postgraduate education. The National Postgraduate Committee points to the possibility of Pounds 30,000 debt for anyone completing undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Twenty per cent of graduates go on to further study. It will be interesting to see if this proportion holds for the future. Parents will face the combined delight of a bigger financial burden, particularly if more than one offspring goes to college, together with the prospect of their laundry-generating treasures remaining at home for three more years.

Second, the student as consumer. Students are much more likely to be critical of teaching quality and their learning environment if they are paying more directly for it. Students already select their university on the basis of reputation. One can only guess at how a more finely tuned consumer approach will affect this selection. It is more likely to be based on teaching reputation rather than research, although it will be the research-orientated institutions that have more money.

If the choice is based on league tables published either by the university system itself or some outside body then the criteria used for drawing up those league tables will become a matter of survival or star status. The temptation to influence a university's placing in the league table by non-objective means, as happens in the United States, will be irresistible. No matter how powerful any quality assurance agency is, it will not be able to withstand an institution's instinct for survival at all costs.

The debate over the influence of league tables is in full swing in Australia. The Good Universities Guide is under attack by the eight top research universities because of what they see as adverse publicity that is affecting student recruitment in the Asian market. Some of the less prestigious universities emphasise their top marks for student satisfaction with teaching, while graduates of the more prestigious institutions are more critical of teaching standards.

If universities do not receive a substantial injection of cash through flat-rate tuition fees or extra government help, then the pressure for top-up fees will become enormous and they will then incur the displeasure of the new government for daring to ask for them. How about a league table in stress levels?

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, a member of the TUC general council, the European TUC executive and the national executive of Unison.

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