Private cost of opening up opportunities

December 11, 1998

Details emerged this week of the funding higher education can expect for the next two years. What it boils down to when inflation and extra numbers are taken into account is, according to the vice-chancellors, just under 1 per cent annual "efficiency gain" (ie, cut) in overall per capita funding after students' contributions through fees is taken into account.

Those privileged students at Oxford who are refusing to pay their fees though they can afford to might like to consider what the state of higher education would have been if fees had not been introduced. Either the quality of their education would be eroding faster or numbers would have had to be reduced instead of expanded, thereby reducing access.

Apart from irritation at the way the government announces other people's contribution to the cost of services as if it were its own, the policy is right. The World Bank in its 1994 report Higher Education: the lessons of experience said the more the cost of each student to the national treasury is held down, the more inclined are governments to allow expansion. Expansion, albeit strictly controlled, is being allowed again. This is welcome. But whether there will be enough demand for extra part-time and sub-degree level courses in further education rather than degree courses in universities is uncertain. The government has taken some welcome steps to help boost demand by remitting fees for part-timers on benefits. More such help may be needed for the policy to succeed.

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