Saga touts

Post-Browne, universities can still come up trumps. How? By recruiting pensioners, explain Alasdair Smith and Iain Smith

December 2, 2010

Memorandum to the vice-chancellor from the dean of continuing education:

I hope that by now you have read the report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) on the public-expenditure implications of the Browne Review.

While most of our colleagues are bemoaning these proposals as an unprecedented attack on our national values, I have, as you would expect of one of your deans, been looking at the business opportunity. As Barack Obama's former chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, said: "You don't ever want a crisis to go to waste."

In the past, this university's success has been based on the speed with which we have latched on to every government subsidy and every special initiative by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. We need to continue this policy in the new environment.

I therefore propose that we launch a suite of new degrees, priced at the maximum annual tuition-fee rate of £9,000 and tailored to the interests of non-graduate retirees living on modest incomes. Archaeology, creative writing, oral history, local history, genealogy and contemporary politics - that should suit their interests; although I am confident that we can also branch out into critical analysis of television soap operas, divinity, war studies, the mathematics of gambling and actuarial statistics.

Our potential students will baulk at an annual fee of £9,000, which for many of them would eat up more than half their annual income, particularly as some of them may be used to attending cheaper courses offered by the Workers' Educational Association or The University of The Third Age.

We will need to explain carefully that they will not actually have to pay any fee. The government will kindly pay us the full sum through the Student Loans Company. The fee would then be reclaimed from the students through the income tax system after they have completed their degrees - but only if their incomes should exceed £21,000.

Since 90 per cent of public-sector pensioners receive an annual pension of less than £17,000, and the Daily Mail keeps telling us that private-sector pensioners are even worse off, our courses will be oversubscribed.

We will also need to point out diplomatically that any liability to fee repayment ends 30 years after completion of their courses or on death, whichever comes sooner - and it is the second option that, realistically, will benefit most of our students.

We can broach this subject differently with different groups. Divinity students, for example, could be gently reminded that an examination by St Peter (viva voce seems not quite the right term) may intervene before their university finals. Economics students will learn that calculating the net present value of lifetime earnings is pretty easy when the lifetime is short, the earnings are minimal, and there no debt repayments. We should market-test the line: "You don't take the debt with you."

Vice-chancellor, I do urge you to give your early approval to this proposal. We have a truly attractive business opportunity, but it will not remain open for long. Just like its predecessor, this government has made the mistake of introducing excessively generous arrangements for student loans to support its plan for university financing. The Liberal Democrats' need to be able to say that this is a "progressive" reform has led to rules that mean a high proportion of student loans will never be repaid.

Hepi suggests that the implications for public expenditure of this generosity are not yet fully understood. Well, we understand them.

Lord Browne's sensible proposal for a national cap on student numbers based on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff would scupper our scheme, but fortunately your fellow vice-chancellors have managed to stall that proposal for the present. Sooner or later, however, this government will have to find some way to clamp down on numbers. We need to get our programmes under way before the inevitable restrictions are introduced.

I therefore ask you to take chair's action on behalf of the planning and resources committee to approve the attached business plan, and on behalf of Senate, give expedited quality-assurance approval.

This exciting new business opportunity can then be given a prominent place in our prospectus for 2012.

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