Tuition fees have emerged as a progressive, even left-wing, cause in the online debate run by The THES and Nexus. Combined with an aggressive programme of means-tested assistance for less well-off students, fees offer one of the most effective way of ensuring equity of access to higher education, according to its supporters.
Labour activist Nick Parrott of Warwick University Student Union said: "Tuition fees are essentially a highly targeted tax that attacks socio-economic privilege and its causes." He added: "I would like to see more such taxes - on private schooling, for example, which is disgracefully exempt from VAT."
From York, Paul Wakeling said better-off students could and should pay more than Pounds 1,025 a year. "If we accept that undergraduates should make a contribution to fees and that this should be means-tested, then I can see no reason why this should be capped at Pounds 1,025. Doing so would seem simply to relatively deprive other sections of the middle class. The message to the government is clear: raise fees, at least for the rich, and promote social inclusion."
Nick Barr, London School of Economics economist and the debate's "resident expert", hit back with arguments against any system, including the present one, that targets the taxpayers' money according to parental income.
He said: "As a practical matter it works badly since many parents do not pay their assessed contribution. It treats young adults as appendages of their parents. It is philosophically wrong, since it targets on the basis of where a person starts rather than on where he/she ends up."
Early in the debate Dr Barr explained why he believes the Pounds 1,025 cap should be taken off tuition fees, allowing better universities to charge more. But first he dismissed the notion that fees are immoral and higher education should be free. "If higher education is a right, food certainly is, yet we do not give free food to the poor. We give them money and let them choose whether to spend it on salmon or baked beans."
"Tuition charges are necessary because the taxpayer cannot afford the entire burden of a mass higher education system. They are efficient because the student derives a significant private benefit from his or her degree. They are equitable as it is regressive for the average taxpayer to subsidise the degrees of people who proceed to above-average incomes."
What bothers Dr Barr is a higher education system where some institutions offer salmon and some offer beans at the same price.
Support for the introduction of differential fees came from David Robertson, professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University. He attacked the "unfairness" of flat-rate fees at institutions where the quality of education ranges from "pot noodle" to "roast swan".
Professor Robertson explained:"Once one accepts the equitable consequences of tuition fees, as I and others have done for years, the idea of a flat-rate fee in a diverse and expanded HE system becomes unsustainable - and unfair - over the medium to long-term. Only short-term political sensitivities prevent the matter from being addressed now."
From Kings College London, historian Jon Wilson weighed in with a long and subtle argument against differential fees. A self-confessed "third way" thinker, he questioned Professor Robertson's implicit argument that differential fees are fair because markets are fair. According to free-market theory, differential fees should be economically efficient and even encourage equal opportunity and social justice.
But Dr Wilson does not believe this works in practice. Prospective students do not have the perfect information that would enable them to make rational choices. Once they have joined a university they cannot easily switch to another, so the supply side does not get the market signals that are quickly detected by a Sainsbury's or a Marks & Spencer.
"A single, unvarying, fixed fee set by government is the only fair way to fund HE because the market is an artificial one," Dr Wilson said. "Students/consumers are not buying a product from an organisation that responds to market mechanisms in a normal way."
Nick Parrott returned to the fray, observing that differential fees give the best institutions more income, widening inequalities between institutions. For the left, this is a potent argument. For the right and centre-right, of course, it is not a problem that "cream rises".
Wherever academics gather to debate, it is not long before the cry of "more research" goes up. Research by Tony Gallagher and colleagues at the graduate school of education, Queen's University Belfast, suggests that "while fees and loans cause financial factors to loom much larger in the minds of prospective students and encourage them to think of ways of staying closer to home, they do not put them off applying in the first place.
"The case for fees is considerably weakened if it has a negative impact on social inclusion. Maintaining a common fee level across HEIs is one protection against this, as is means-testing the fees."
Claire Callender, professor of social policy at South Bank University, is undertaking a large study for the Department for Education and Employment that will look at some of the effects of tuition fees on student behaviour. But she pointed out the study's limitations: "This study's remit is only current students. The study cannot capture those people who decide not to go to university because of the changes in student funding. Surely this is where research also needs to be conducted?" There has also been lively discussion of loans, graduate taxes and even community service as ways of getting students to fund their own education.
Gerard Blair, an engineer at Hewlett Packard in the United States, did not think loans are the answer. "Put yourself in the position of the student about ten years after graduation. You pay all sorts of taxes: VAT, road, stamp duty, income, national insurance. Your disposable income is also reduced by loan repayments. Does the fact that they are loan repayments make you feel better or do you simply lump it together as 'money you don't keep and that goes to government?'" he asked.
As the debate entered its second week, he added that in the United States where there has been a tuition-fees "arms race", with institutions "relying on an explosion in student indebtedness to bankroll facilities and research having little to do with undergraduate teaching" as Matthew Miller wrote in the New York Times Magazine.
The debate continues at www.netnexus.org/ext/thes until June 25