In a session that explored the best- and worst-case scenarios following the Browne Review’s overhaul of higher education funding, Paul Greatrix, registrar of the University of Nottingham, gave a darkly humorous analysis of what the coming years could hold.
Arguing against the motion, “UK higher education will be in much better shape in five years’ time as a consequence of the changes introduced by the government following the Browne Review”, Dr Greatrix suggested that within years all universities would have tuition fees of at least £9,000.
Public funding cuts would leave academics unable to cope with their workload, and serve to increase disaffection among increasingly demanding and indebted students. Complaints about universities would rocket, he forecast.
Meanwhile, despite promises by the state that red tape would be cut, bureaucracy would also increase as civil servants struggled to regulate the sector with a shrinking proportion of public income. “The last pound of public money will cost billions to allocate, but I’m sure the government will manage that,” Dr Greatrix quipped.
Arguing in favour of the motion, Ruth Amos, managing director of StairSteady Ltd and an award-winning young inventor, said the Browne Review would have a positive impact because higher fees would force prospective students to think more carefully about whether university was the right choice for them.
“University is not a halfway house or a finishing school. It’s not somewhere people should go because they can’t decide what to do,” she argued.
Ms Amos welcomed the extra support for part-time study and “earn while you learn” schemes, and called on businesses to promote alternatives to higher education.
“When I was at school there were two options – go to university or get a job. But there are many more options than that,” she said.
However, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, warned against shrinking student numbers in difficult financial times.
He said the UK had already dropped from third to 11th among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development members when ranked by the percentage of graduates among the adult population.
“For the UK to remain internationally competitive we need to ensure that we have an educated population,” he said.
Mr Porter said the mass higher education system in the UK had offered a “life-transforming” experience for a generation whose parents had not had the chance to attend university.
The changes instituted following the Browne Review would, he said, undermine widening participation initiatives and narrow student experience as many more young people choose to study from home.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that students might have to make a choice based on how much debt they’re prepared to undertake,” he said.