Scrooge tactics

May 14, 2004

The state must not scrounge off students to fund academia, insists Vincent Carpentier

The political and academic controversies surrounding discussion of the higher education bill have centred on the link between funding and the expansion of higher education. At a time when we are experiencing decreasing expenditure per student, a variety of crucial questions have emerged, or rather re-emerged.

Should higher education continue to expand? Who benefits from higher education and who should fund it?

Higher education is traditionally associated with individual and social economic returns, the former being easier to measure than the latter. The wider benefits to society are even harder to measure.

As a result, policy choices are uncomfortably based on the confrontation between these rather woolly outputs from higher education and its much more visible input - the public cost. While postwar policies tended to favour access, as symbolised by the 1963 Robbins report, post-1970s policies were more inclined to favour the control of public expenditure.

The higher education bill tends to follow an intermediary position, in line with the 1997 Dearing report. The current reforms may be considered in terms of the transition from an elite to a mass higher education system over the past century.

Since the 1920s, massive increases in funding have reflected massive increases in the number of enrolments. Nevertheless, there have been considerable variations within this overall rise. For example, expenditure per student in 2002 was more than 3.5 times the level in 1921 but only half the 1973 level.

The impact of economic fluctuations on the level of funding for higher education may explain these mismatches between funding and access policies.

The long-term expansion in university resources has not been linear and this reflects economic cycles.

The expansion of the university system was driven by the sustained growth of public funding through the postwar boom. The 1973 oil crisis led to a decrease in public funding.

These changes had an enormous impact on the income structure of universities. Their reliance on public funding increased from 50 per cent in 1945 to 90 per cent in 1973, and then decreased again to 50 per cent today.

Such changes are relevant to the current higher education debate in several ways.

History shows that the impact of fees on access depends on the level of student support. Tuition-fee subsidies clearly favoured access during the 1960s, while the reduction of student support harmed enrolment during the 1980s. Any future increase in fees will be massive compared with those of the past, but it will also be based on different methods of implementation.

It is therefore rather difficult to predict the effect on access. The new mechanisms of student support mean that those from poor backgrounds will not have to pay fees and the remainder will repay fees only once they have found a job post-graduation. But is there sufficient support to encourage debt-averse students?

More important, tuition fees periodically increased in the past to replace retracted public funding. They were not additional resources, and therefore did not lead to a rise in the overall income of universities.

To achieve the world-class higher education system the government says it wants, future increases in fees should not be seen as a substitute for public spending, as this risks damaging access without providing sufficient funding to ensure qualitative progress. Fee increases must be combined with a real increase in public funding to sustain students from all social backgrounds and to boost expenditure per student.

Vincent Carpentier is a research officer at the Institute of Education, University of London. His research project on higher education and the UK socioeconomic system was supported through an Economic and Social Research Council award.

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