Many in English universities thought that the argument over tuition fees had been won. They assumed that the pledge by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to abolish fees would be buried, alongside his leadership and the rest of his manifesto, in the predicted Tory landslide at the recent general election. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way, and England now finds itself repeating the heated arguments of 1998, 2004 and 2010: the years when the legislation was passed to introduce fees, triple them, and then triple them again.
Abolishing tuition fees was central to Labour’s election pitch to the young, but it was always about more than just higher education policy. Like higher public-sector pay and the renationalisation of the railways and utilities, it became a symbol of Corbyn’s refusal to compromise on issues of principle, and it is the manifesto pledge that commentators and politicians have latched on to as the most politically significant.
Across the political spectrum, doubts about existing fee levels and repayment rules are being voiced. From George Trefgarne in The Daily Telegraph to Lord Adonis in The Guardian, there are demands for change. Senior government minister Damian Green has even hinted that there might be a need for a “national conversation” to reconsider the issue.
But, of course, that conversation wouldn’t be about fees alone. As journalist Andrew Rawnsley said in The Observer, it would also involve “robust thinking about how to change the behaviour of those universities that are underperforming and overcharging”. And, like other commentators, he questions whether 50 per cent participation in higher education is still a good target, and whether three-year degrees are the right model.
So the debate is moving on to the whole size and shape of higher education: issues that many thought had also been firmly consigned to history. And the debate is happening at a time when, according to Ceri Thomas, director of public affairs at the University of Oxford, “the gulf between universities and the public feels dangerously wide”.
The debate so far has been a little disconcerting for universities. It is clear that few commentators grasp the details of how the student loans system works, the effect of fees on the demographics of university enrolment and the need for universities to be properly funded in order to function. Universities and vice-chancellors are routinely dismissed as “fat cats”, “awash with cash” or “running cartels” at the expense of students, communities and the country as a whole.
Nor have recent political moves helped. The teaching excellence framework invites more negative assumptions about teaching quality, the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) project shines a spotlight on low graduate pay in some areas, and the narrative of the recently passed Higher Education and Research Act demands more challenge to a complacent sector.
A number of promised reviews look like they might now merge into one. The TEF review is laid down in the act, and a “major review” of tertiary education funding was promised in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto. Both will have to take as much notice of contemporary realpolitik as technical policy detail. Ask Lord Browne of Madingley – whose 2010 report recommended uncapping fees entirely – how that works.
The sector’s voice has not been audible amid all the criticism, and the proper funding of universities, including science and research, is nowhere near the top of the public’s agenda. But vice-chancellors should not respond merely by offering more technical detail. Today’s febrile politics is a broad-brush affair, dominated by primary colours, symbolism and simple narratives. So don’t bring a knife to a gunfight – or a fine-grade pencil to paint a house.
Neither policymakers nor university leaders should assume that new approaches or policies are best forged behind closed doors. They need to think about how a system looks and feels, test whether the public understands it and supports its cost, its volume and its purpose. The benefits of going to university will need to be better articulated. But, just as importantly, all our efforts to explain the wider social and economic impacts of universities must be redoubled.
Ultimately, for the public to care more about universities, the higher education sector will have to do a better job of demonstrating that it cares about them.