Wrong direction

By backing coalition plans for higher fees, UUK president Steve Smith has failed students and universities, argues Aaron Porter

December 9, 2010

This week, Steve Smith, the outgoing president of Universities UK, tried and spectacularly failed to encourage university vice-chancellors to urge MPs and peers to vote in favour of the government's proposals for tuition fees.

Many vice-chancellors are understandably disappointed by an approach that has seen the academy suffer perhaps the worst public funding cuts of any sector, exacerbated by the reckless formation of a policy that would force the next generation to pay for that calamity.

What Smith neglects to mention is that he has spent considerable energy campaigning for a huge increase in fees on the assumption that his efforts to extract more money from students would deliver additional funding in a period of austerity.

Ministers spotted an easy opportunity. They have offered Smith higher fees but at a devastating price: a cut of 40 per cent from the higher education budget and 80 per cent from the teaching grant, leaving our sector among the worst funded in the developed world. They offered Smith what he craved while pulling the rug from under him, leaving him with no apparent alternative but to do their bidding by selling a reckless, irrational and deeply unpopular policy.

Smith argues that either tuition fees must rise or student numbers must fall to an extent that the UK's graduation rates, already comparatively poor, would count among the worst in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This argument convinces no one.

He has failed universities and students by neglecting to join us in making the case for sustained investment in higher education. So badly has he failed that we have joined Romania as the only nations to cut public funding to their university systems.

If higher fees become law, English institutions will become the most expensive public universities in the world. In all respects, UK higher education would suffer an embarrassing and degrading loss. Smith should have shown the government the value of investment in the academy, emphasising its massive social, economic and cultural returns. Instead, he has shown little love for the sector or for students. He has exiled himself to a dark corner, pushing for privatisation.

Smith realised too late that the universities' grip on public funding was loosening. Instead of fighting to hold on, he turned his attention to what he could get from students.

His position is self-defeating. If the plans are not defeated, the student vitriol directed against the rise in fees will be poured on their universities. Students will demand that the money they invest is spent on teaching and facilities. Their attention will soon turn to the inflated salaries of university management and the lack of improvements to the student experience over a decade of rising fees.

The National Union of Students is campaigning for investment in higher education and a fair funding system for both students and society - we have made the case for an internally and externally progressive funding model. I have made clear many times why our graduate tax system is a sustainable and fair funding settlement for both students and universities. It deserves proper consideration by a government that has built flimsy straw-men arguments to cover an ideological desire to shift the burden of funding from the state to the individual.

Much has been made of the "progressive" nature of the government's plans, not least by Nick Clegg as he desperately tries to convince his own party that tripling fees is just as fair as scrapping them. This argument does not stand up. Ministers' arguments have slowly drowned in a sea of opaque data, unsupported assurances and political chaos.

Of course our current system of university funding is unsustainable and needs to be reformed to ensure that students have more say. Rushing through a huge rise in tuition fees and swingeing funding cuts is not the way forward.

Together with the vice-chancellors, we should fight these plans and ensure a rethink that produces the fair and sustainable outcome that the coalition's proposals would not provide.

Smith should do the honourable thing by taking that alternative. He should defend students and universities, not sell them down the river.

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