Education & Family

Browne panel member's view

University entrance
Image caption The Browne review's panel say their proposed system is fair and progressive

The Browne review on university funding in England has recommended completely lifting the cap on the tuition fees, but with universities charged a levy on fee income over a £6,000 threshold. Panel member Professor David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, explains more about the panel's decisions.

What are the key improvements that you are trying to achieve?

We must maintain a high quality system, offer a world class student experience and sustain opportunities for all who can benefit to study in higher education. At the same time we must ensure that the system is affordable for students, taxpayers and government. If the government adopts these progressive recommendations, we will maintain a world class, sustainable and stable higher education system that our country needs and that our students deserve.

Why do you think that fees have to rise by so much?

Our universities are a huge success story, second only to those of the United States in terms of reputation, quality, and impact. It is critical to maintain the academic quality of UK higher education and continue to enhance the student experience so that universities are able to meet student expectations and the nation's needs - strengthening the economy, delivering novel solutions to major challenges through research and developing a highly skilled workforce.

But, unlike the NHS, higher education funding is not a protected budget. We are in line for deep cuts. We need a bold and imaginative solution to maintain our success. This is precisely what Lord Browne's Independent Review of Fees and Funding has delivered.

We are recommending a fair system where no-one pays fees up front. Graduates, not students, make a contribution to the cost of their higher education, but they only do so when they are in work and earning a salary at a level where they can afford it. In this way, graduates contribute only when they are benefiting from their higher education.

Is this new approach any fairer than the current system?

Yes, the new approach is progressive and offers a very good deal for students. Support for learning is matched by a generous system of support for student living. The non-repayable grants for the least well off will be increased, and no-one should be deterred from studying by the cost of their maintenance. Where families can contribute, they will; where they can't, students will receive grants. All students will benefit from loans which, again, they repay only when then can afford to do so. For the first time, part-time students will receive the financial support that the current system denies them.

These proposals will mean that universities provide open and transparent commitments to guarantee students the right kind of information, the right amount of teaching, and the right quality of learning. They will improve the student experience and increase student choice. All students can be assured that the fees that they pay will be re-invested into the academic services and facilities of their university.

Will more people be able to go to university as a result of these proposals, including students from less well off families?

Under the system no-one need be deterred by student debt. Grants for the least well off will be increased and graduate contributions will be affordable and, unlike a graduate tax, they will capped so graduates will be clear about how much they will pay. There is a new flexibility too. Part-time students will enjoy the kind of support both for tuition and living that the old system denied them.

Participation has actually increased since fees were introduced in 2006, because we offer generous student support to applicants from the poorest and least advantaged backgrounds. These proposals will allow even more opportunities for those who can benefit from higher education the opportunity to do so. Government and universities will work together to get clear information out to the students to make sure that they understand how the new system will benefit them.

Are these proposals going to squeeze the middle classes who already feel that they have to pay for everything?

Graduates contribute only when they are benefiting financially from their higher education. Everyone, including the middle classes, benefit from a sustainable high quality higher education sector. Higher education is among the best investments a country can make - not only is it an investment in the skills and people it needs to succeed economically, it is also an investment in the research base that that improves healthcare, supports social development and supports industrial advances that will enable us to re-grow the economy, an investment in the values and people that make civil society work, and an investment in one of our most successful export industries.

Why was a graduate tax rejected?

Unlike a graduate tax, when the amount graduates pay could be unlimited, Lord Browne's recommendations carefully limit graduates' repayments and link them to the institution at which they have studied and the cost of the degree they received. Graduate contributions will be affordable and capped.

A graduate tax could result in many students contributing far more than under Lord Browne's proposals as they could find themselves paying higher taxes for the rest of their working lives. In addition, a graduate tax would not be paid by students from EU countries so the costs of their studying in England would by carried by UK graduates and taxpayers.

A complex change to the tax system would be expensive to administer - an unwelcome cost burden on the public finances at a time of recession and an unwelcome additional time-unlimited tax for individuals alongside other likely tax rises.

How much did politics get in the way of decision making?

Of course the politics of higher education funding and student support will always be complex and challenging. There are a wide range of strong and valid views. However, these proposals offer the best deal for students, for universities, and through maintenance of a strong university sector - a good deal for the country. These proposals are the best way to maintain a high quality, flexible higher education system which gives all who can benefit from higher education the opportunity to do so.

What were the toughest decisions in this process?

The toughest decision was securing the right balance between the support for students' living costs and the support required by universities.

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