Top-up plan falls down

November 8, 2002

A hike in tuition fees will damage efforts to widen participation and restrict the growth of key subject areas, argues Timothy O'Shea

The University of Edinburgh and Imperial College, London, both want to close the competitive gap between themselves and leading US universities such as Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is an appropriate strategic goal, but it does not necessitate the imposition of tuition fees of £10,000 or more.

The US has achieved a much higher participation rate in higher education than the UK and has proportionally many more degree-awarding institutions. The key difference compared with the UK is that the US invests a much greater proportion of its gross domestic product in private and public higher education. Investment in public higher education alone is greater in the US than in the UK - as it is in many other countries including Germany and France.

US students are supported by a variety of state and federal programmes. There is also a long tradition of philanthropic support for universities. A key job for UK vice-chancellors is to secure for our universities equivalent levels of political support and of corporate and alumni donations.

Some of the leading US universities are private, and implicit in the tuition-fees debate is the potential privatisation of leading UK universities. There are three reasons for caution. First, privatising the elite would risk alienating taxpayers, who have contributed greatly to higher education. Second, it ignores the success of the great US public universities such as California and Texas. Third, the UK's one serious experiment with the private-university approach does not provide a convincing model for the future.

The proponents of raising tuition fees try to sweeten the pill by asserting that, in addition to greatly raising income for salaries and university buildings, this approach would generate bursaries for a needs-blind approach to admissions. I cannot make these sums work. While there are various ways in which such a system might be implemented, all would end up with students from better-off backgrounds paying far more than the real cost of their courses in order to subsidise full or partial bursaries for those from poorer backgrounds. Another danger is that some students would be caught in a poverty trap just above the bursary line. And the position would be even worse if the government were unable to resist the temptation to further erode the funding provided for teaching.

Overall, only a university that recruited a high proportion of very wealthy students could combine the great fee hikes proposed by Imperial with needs-blind bursaries for a relatively small proportion of its students.

The problem with top-up fees is that they would lead inevitably to increased pressure to charge future scientists, engineers and doctors higher fees than future philosophers and historians. But the UK desperately needs more scientists and engineers. We need to encourage all who could benefit from university education in the computer sciences and the life sciences to tackle these subjects. We also need to ensure that professions such as medicine attract candidates from all backgrounds.

The University of Edinburgh trained George Birkbeck, the Quaker doctor and educational philosopher who argued for "universal access to the blessings of knowledge!". I believe equity and access must remain key strategic goals for any university. Hiking tuition fees will work directly against widening participation by increasing student debt. Perhaps bursaries can fix this for the poorest students, but other low-income families will not be attracted by the prospect of debts for university participation comparable in scale with their mortgages.

Edinburgh excels despite being underfunded, and we will continue to argue forcibly the case for more support from taxation. We will also continue to ask for support from our alumni and we will develop ever more joint enterprises with Scottish industry. I will also continue to argue against raising tuition fees because I want the very best students with the greatest potential to aspire to join the University of Edinburgh and the UK's other leading universities regardless of their means.

Timothy O'Shea is principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh.

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