Student funding: off the back burner

October 20, 1995

(Photograph) - New Solutions, an independent group of over 100 student union officers, is seeking to revitalise the debate on student funding. In the first stage of a consultation exercise, the group has issued the following document and questionnaire. Here, The THES publishes the document in full in order to further debate, and to ensure that students' voices are heard as the funding of higher education moves up the political agenda.

1. INTRODUCTION

"As the nature of paid work changes so will society. Work remains the foundation of human endeavour and well-being and the capacity and willingness of people to work is a nation's greatest asset. But if the changed society is to be cohesive then the idea of the educated elite (paid for by society) and a less educated, unquestioning mass has to be challenged."

Jeff Rooker mp (1)

The current education funding policy of the Government is failing students throughout further and higher education. The past 12 months have seen the student movement debate education funding policy with an aim to give students a credible voice at the negotiating table and influence educational decision makers. The ongoing debate has been dominated by slogans, rhetoric, emotion and propaganda. The polarisation of the issues has left many student unionists frustrated by an NUS policy which they believe to be unrealistic and unachievable.

This consultation document rejects the tired slogans which have perpetuated divisions, and instead, outlines the reasons why there need to be new solutions for funding education. New solutions that can deliver an alleviation of student hardship, an improvement in the quality of education that students receive and the creation of real opportunity and access for all wishing to enter and re-enter post-16 education.

The document gives students, students' union officers and all involved in post-16 education the opportunity to conduct an open and frank debate; a process necessary to reach a new solution that deals with the challenges of a changing education system and ultimately delivers real benefits for students through-out the United Kingdom.

2. THE ISSUES

2.1 Increasing student numbers

In 1993 only 30 per cent of 18-year-olds were in full-time education, compared with 60 per cent in Japan and France. The sharp rise in higher education participation seems to have levelled off at about 30 per cent in the United Kingdom (35 per cent in Scotland) at 1995.

Two thirds of British workers have no vocational or professional qualification, compared with only 25 per cent in Germany.(2) The Government's 25-year goal of doubling participation in post-16 education from 15 per cent to 30 per cent was achieved in five years. This has meant a huge increase in the Treasury bill for higher education.

To curtail this expenditure the Government introduced measures in November 1993 to make further expansion unattractive to colleges by directing funding councils to penalise institutions which accepted more students than their prescribed targets.

Kenneth Edwards, former chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, stated in relation to the 1993 measures: "These plans do nothing to satisfy the enormous and growing demand on higher education . . . Having stoked up the aspirations of young people, and encouraged them into further education, the Government is now attempting to deny them the opportunity for which so many are now clamouring."

2.2 Quality

Full-time equivalent student num-bers are projected to grow by 24.7 per cent between 1992/93 and 1995/96. Cash per student will go down by 5.5 per cent.(3)

The policy of expansion and creating opportunity for those who wish to participate in post-16 education is to be welcomed. However, the recent expansion has been inadequately resourced. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals estimates that since 1990 there has been a 25 per cent reduction in Government spending per student.

This has directly affected the quality of education for many students, manifesting itself most notably through the lack of sufficient library facilities, the increasing use of postgraduates to provide teaching support, the increase in student-staff ratios, lack of suitable and affordable accommodation, and hidden institution costs borne directly by the student for photocopying, equipment and field trips.

It is only when institutions are properly resourced that students will receive the quality education and training they require.

2.3 Student hardship

The 1995 NUS survey Value for Money found that 50 per cent of students considered themselves to be suffering due to their financial situation. Over 30 per cent work during term time to supplement their income. The grant cuts, the end of the mature students' allowance, the loss of housing benefit, the loss of the right to claim income support, the inability of many parents to meet the expected parental contribution, and the introduction of student loans administered by the inefficient and unaccountable Students Loan Company have all contributed to making many students' lives a misery, and have affected their ability to fully appreciate the opportunity of higher education.

The situation is even worse for further education students, part-time students and distance learners who receive no maintenance support and limited fees. The new 16-hour rule will make it particularly difficult for the unemployed to stay in education.

Is it any wonder, with the extent of difficulty being experienced by such a broad range of students, that the recent survey by the Centre for Research into Quality revealed that 92 per cent of students believe that the education funding system is in need of reform?

2.4 Participation in post-16 education

The elitist nature of the existing system has not changed in the past 30 years. Students from economically disadvantaged households, measured by fathers' occupation (social groups III, IV, V), are at almost the same proportion as in the 1960s before the recent expansion in participation. Social groups I and II account for 64 per cent of university students whereas social group V accounts for 1 per cent.(4)

Richer families are able to invest more in their children's education, either through public school, by moving to areas where there are grammar schools or where the resources for state education are more generous. This in turn gives their children an advantage in competition for student places.

A THES/MORI poll(5) on attitudes towards reform of the current system of student funding reinforced the reality of a higher education system dominated by the more affluent in society. It showed that those who defended the concept of "free education" most strongly were those who could afford to contribute to the costs of educational provision through some form of graduate contribution scheme.

The tendency to resist change as shown by support for the status quo was strongest in the professional classes (61 per cent in the AB classification) and weakest among those in social groups C1C2 and DE (55 per cent and 50 per cent respectively). Support for reform of the status quo, and the introduction of some form of student contribution, was strongest among the C1 social group.

2.5 Life-long learning

It is becoming apparent that post-16 education will have to become flexible in its approach to accommodate the retraining needs of the workforce. The rigid structures and financial constraints of the present system are making returning to education an unattractive option for many mature students.

Adult education and training not only increases confidence and skills but also provides routes back into work. It is a valuable resource for enhancing the quality of people's lives.

2.6 Direct benefits of post-16 educational experience In 1977 graduates earned 40 per cent more than those with no qualifications, and in 1991/92 this figure had risen to just over 47 per cent.(6)

It is clear from an abundance of research that those who experience post-16 education benefit from that experience in financial and non-financial ways. The income of graduates is very often higher than the national average wage, and higher in comparison with the income of those who have not experienced post-16 education.

3. NUS POLICY IMPLICATIONS

3.1 Current NUS policy calls for a return to pre-1979 levels of Government funding for education.

This would mean:

A large increase in grant levels.

The reintroduction of housing benefit and income support.

An end to parental contribution.

Increased institutional funding.

NUS policy also rightly calls for an end to the inequality of funding between higher education and further education and between full and part-time students. This would require the payment of fees for part-time students and further education students with the provision of maintenance support for further education students.

The costs of all of the above would be, with present levels of participation in further and higher education, nearly Pounds 8.7 billion.

If student numbers are to increase to around a 40 per cent participation rate, then the cost of implementing NUS policy would be nearer Pounds 11 billion. This would involve increasing income tax revenue to make funding available for post-16 education. The Government would need to increase the basic rate of income tax by 6.5p in the pound or p in the pound on the higher rate.(7)

3.2 Alternative priorities

Those who defend current NUS policy argue that it could be achieved in tandem with increased Government investment in other areas of education and the public services.

However, post-16 education funding is in competition with calls on Government funding to provide comprehensive nursery education, increase desperately needed investment in primary and secondary education, restore funding in the National Health Service, fund a full employment investment programme and much more.

If Pounds 11 billion were raised in taxes and spent on implementing current NUS policy the following investment programmes would be foregone: Opening 25 new primary schools every single day of the year.

Building 170 new hospitals each year.

Constructing more than 100,000 new council houses every year to house the homeless.

Comprehensive nursery education for every three-year-old in the United Kingdom.

4. Guiding principles

Any new solution to the problem of education funding should be based on the following guiding principles:

4.1 Expansion of opportunity

Any new system must not deter students from entering or re-entering post-16 education and must provide institutions with enough money to allow expansion without reducing quality. It must cater for mass participation education - making post-16 education available to all who wish to benefit.

4.2 Quality education and training

Any future system must invest in institutions to ensure that teaching standards are improved and that the learning resources and environment for students are of a decent standard.

Students and those who work in post-16 education suffer the consequences of the "efficiency savings" forced on institutions.

4.3 Enough money to live on

Any future system must alleviate student hardship and give students enough money to live on. The negative impact that financial hardship has on academic performance has been researched and documented in many studies.

If we are to ensure that all students benefit equally from education the alleviation of hardship must be a top priority.

4.4 A fair deal for all

Any new system must provide a similar provision of maintenance support for part-time students, distance learners and further education students as full-time students in the higher education sector.

Funding for students in further education is currently, in many cases, non-existent. Discretionary awards have been hit by reductions to local authority budgets and many students find that their local authority simply does not fund discretionary awards.

Both further and higher education students should receive adequate financial support. This should be matched by an end to the inequality of institutional funding between further and higher education.

Further education has a central role in developing access to all areas of post-16 education, and any new system must increase investment in resources for further education so that students in that sector have equal access to a quality education.

The new system must also ensure greater equality between part-time and full-time students. Part-time study is chosen by many mature students, students in full or part-time employment and students with dependents, all of whom find this the only way to combine study with their other responsibilities.

4.5 Access

Any future system must be free at the point of entry and not deter those with the ability and desire to learn.

4.6 Partnership for education funding

The new system must be based on a new partnership for funding education - one that sees those who benefit from post-16 education making a contribution to its costs.

Society, through the taxpayer, should have a majority stake in the funding of post-16 education. Big business should also pay its fair share for the education and training of students who will bring transferable skills gained while at college.

This should be done through a new and progressive employers' tax that is used to fund investment in further education and the provision of maintenance support for students in that sector.

Those who directly benefit from experiencing post-16 education should contribute an element to the costs of provision. This must be based on progressive principles and implemented in a way that does not burden students or those who have been through post-16 education.

5: THE NEXT STEPS

All involved in post-16 education have a stake in the debate on the future of education funding. All are affected by the squeeze on financial resources and by increasing student numbers. All should be involved and the views of all are vital if a credible consensus on that future is to be arrived at.

New Solutions is working with student unionists from across the country, the Association of University Teachers, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, and The THES to widen the debate on education funding.

Please participate in the consultation process by contributing to the questions set out in the box (see left). A document outlining the results of the consultation will be published in January 1996.

This New Solutions document can also be found on The THES Internet service THESIS http//thesis.newsint.co.uk

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