Tuition: to pay or not?

December 11, 1998

YES says Peter Younie, bursar of an Oxford College

This year the family of every first-year student in this country became potentially liable to pay Pounds 1,000 towards the cost of their university tuition. Yet the only active protest is taking place at Oxford University. Twelve of the 15 protesters who are refusing to pay their fees are from this college, Somerville.

We may secretly take pride in the fact that our undergraduates are exhibiting drive and initiative. By not paying they have generated press coverage that has publicised their arguments. This is important because they are adamant that their protest is on a point of principle. It is not generated by a simple reluctance or inability to pay. (Most of them have paid the fee into a special bank account instead of to the college, and one undergraduate owes only Pounds 8.) But there is a deep concern surrounding their actions. If the protesters do not pay their fees they jeopardise their academic future. They will be excluded from the university's facilities (not unreasonably, since they will not have paid for them). On the other hand, if they pay on the first day of next term, though they will not suffer, a lot of unnecessary administrative work will have been caused to the administrators of departments who have to work out how to implement the exclusion policy.

Nor are the points of principle being put forward valid. Alice Nash and Kate Atkinson (the "Balliol Two") say that "... charging for higher education is fundamentally wrong and unfair". They do not say why. Education cannot be "free"; someone has got to pay for it. Tuition fees are not new. In fact, for laboratory-based courses at this university, they are lower than last year's charge of Pounds 1,600. What has changed is who pays them; the burden has shifted from the taxpayer to the family.

Nor is this an access issue: the tuition fee is means-tested, ensuring that the poorest do not have to pay it.

The lack of protest elsewhere, and the large number of people still applying to study for first degrees, suggests that the "threat of debt" is not deterring "less well-off students".

Yet there is a real crisis. Sometimes it seems as if the only policy for higher education in this country is to make it cheaper. As a result, the system is starved of cash per student, and the processes for raising further money from the state depend on research performance, rather than teaching.

Thanks to government and endowment fund contributions, families of most Oxford undergraduates pay less than a third of the cost of their education - a cost that is lower than it should be, as a result of inadequate capital investment and low salary charges. So how cheap should an Oxford degree be? When will the consequences of lack of spending mean that Oxford will no longer be regarded as an international, world-class university?

Whatever our protesting students may think, it is no good expecting more income per student from the government. The political will and the necessary funds are not there.

The answer is surely that those who benefit from university education should pay for it. Since most students come straight from school, and so do not yet have the money to pay, provision has to be made for them to do so from future earnings. The Balliol Two suggest a "graduate tax". This would be expensive to administer and subject to political whim.

Instead, we need an independent scheme that is commercially viable, so that the funds would not have to be found from within the higher education system, and would not be limited.

Access would then cease to be an issue: since a first degree would be paid for from future earnings, the current financial position of the student would be irrelevant. Top-up fees would no longer be a problem, since neither the taxpayer nor the student's family would have to pay them. We could then maintain a world-class education by charging an appropriate amount for it.

In effect, a student would get a "mortgage" to fund his or her education. The National Union of Students' estimate of the likely loan requirement is Pounds 12,000 - less than in most other countries, and far less than students will borrow in later life to pay for a house, a car... In purely financial terms, it would be a remarkably good investment, given the enhanced earning prospects created.

Students would be paying to be taught, creating a flow of funds specifically for teaching. The supplier/customer relationship between university and student would be clearer.

So the Oxford students' protest seems interesting but irrelevant - indeed, curiously old-fashioned. It does not address the real problem, which is how to maintain standards in higher education with inadequate funds, and it puts too much faith in government intervention (ironically, since it was the government that introduced fees in the first place.

Peter Younie is bursar at Somerville College, Oxford University.

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