Transfer of fees to students may be 'over the top'

England may have gone "a bit over the top" in transferring the cost of university education from the state to the graduate, the coordinator of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's skills strategy has said.

May 24, 2012

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser to the OECD secretary general, was speaking at the launch of the strategy at a conference in London on 18 May.

From the autumn, universities in England will charge students up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees as the government withdraws teaching grants for all but high-cost subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Dr Schleicher said that the principle of sharing costs between the state and the student was right - and in that respect "the rest of Europe can learn a lot from the UK" - but he suggested that the reforms had perhaps gone too far.

The OECD report that accompanied the strategy launch stresses the need for people to keep learning throughout their lives. Skills can otherwise "depreciate" as labour markets change and individuals forget those they do not use, it says.

"For skills to retain their value, they must be continuously developed throughout life," it argues.

"[In] the Nordic countries...lifelong learning has become a reality. Governments are putting up the incentives," Dr Schleicher said.

However, in the UK there is "limited sustained investment in skills".

Asked if higher tuition fees would damage prospects for lifelong learning in England, Dr Schleicher said that the government, individuals and employers should share the costs, and it was essential to "figure out more clearly to whom do benefits accrue".

English universities had to be careful that they did not replicate the situation in the US, where "unit costs are rising and rising" but participation rates are stagnant, he added.

He said that England's student loan model, where graduates repay their debts when they earn more than a set threshold, was "a quite good system". However, "none of this exists for continuing training and learning in the workplace".

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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