Education & Family

Tuition fees plan: Vice chancellors for and against

As MPs prepare to vote on an increase in tuition fees, university vice-chancellors give their opposing views about the future of higher education funding.

PROF DAVID GREEN, UNIVERSITY OF WORCESTER VICE-CHANCELLOR

When MPs vote on Thursday on proposals to raise tuition fees, their main concern should be fairness. Vince Cable and David Willetts, the ministers responsible for higher education, have repeatedly claimed the tuition fee reforms will be a "fairer system". But their arguments have not convinced the overwhelming majority of young people and their families.

Image caption Prof Green says the Welsh government policy could work well in England

The last-ditch argument for these proposals is that they are the only way to ensure the number of university places is not cut dramatically. This is false. There are several other viable policy options.

One is to follow the policy adopted by the Welsh government. As in England, this allows universities to increase fees up to the proposed £9,000 in 2012, enabling universities to make up for the huge cuts in teaching grants.

The critical addition is that the Welsh government will also provide students domiciled in Wales with a large fee subsidy, so that students will only need to borrow a little over £3,300 in 2012 for their annual tuition fees, as at present.

Unfortunately the current proposals have generated enormous resentment at the unfairness of a system that will make English students incur very large debts to meet high fees in their own country.

Mr Cable and Mr Willetts claim their blueprint for the changes is the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, chaired by Lord Browne. Some of the Browne recommendations were progressive and fair - notably giving part-time students access to the same financial support as those taking full-time courses, and empowering student choice.

Unfortunately, these progressive elements were torpedoed by a central ethical error at the heart of the review, which proposed to transfer the total cost of most university teaching to the graduate.

This fails to recognise the contribution that graduates make to society as a whole. Combined with the government's deep cuts on spending for university teaching, it has resulted in a deeply unfair policy.

The 80% cut in the university teaching spend, equivalent to a staggering 40% overall in higher education funding over the next five years, is so dramatic that it can only be made up by nearly trebling tuition fees.

No increases in undergraduate student places are planned, despite the record-breaking 200,000-plus applicants who failed to secure a university place last year and the fact that demand for places is already substantially up again this year.

England needs a different solution.

The combination of brutal cuts and the Browne review's impoverished vision has turned the government's national deficit-reduction programme into a debt-creation programme for tomorrow's graduates and a treacherous obstacle course for England's universities. For Britain, this is as unwise as it is unfair.

PROF DAVID EASTWOOD, UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM VICE-CHANCELLOR AND PROF DAVID GREENAWAY, UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM VICE-CHANCELLOR

The polarised debate on university funding in England is generating much noise and misunderstanding. A debate about how much graduates should contribute and how that is done has mutated into a campaign for many causes.

Image caption Prof David Eastwood says a "viable solution" is needed for university funding

If we want a funding regime which will sustain quality and international competitiveness, whilst promoting social mobility, noisy protest is not enough. We need a viable solution.

We are still in the shadow of the financial crisis. Avoiding banking meltdown and dealing with recession ballooned an already large public sector deficit. All parties agree this is a problem. So like it or not, cuts have to be made.

Hospitals, schools and overseas aid have been deemed bigger priorities for taxpayer support and public investment in university teaching will be especially hard-hit. Some still argue against raising the cap on tuition fees but fail to understand the dire alternatives.

With a £3bn reduction in spending, we could radically reduce the number of students attending universities, but the effects on social mobility could be catastrophic. We could reduce spending on teaching, but the impact on quality would be immediate and devastating.

Key protagonists agree there is an efficient and fair way of replacing public subsidies - graduates pay more. The National Union of Students believes this, given their advocacy of a graduate tax, as indeed does Labour leader Ed Miliband.

As an alternative to what Parliament will vote on during Thursday, it is extremely unattractive - graduates start paying earlier; they pay longer; and they pay more. Moreover, the idea that a graduate tax would be hypothecated to higher education (when it eventually delivers revenues) is naive. It has nothing to commend it.

The government's proposals will drive additional resource into universities. Like a graduate tax, no-one pays fees up front, which is fundamentally important to promoting access.

Graduates, not students, make a contribution but only when in work and when they can afford it. Unlike a graduate tax, this empowers students and ensures funding goes directly to their university when they are studying and can benefit from the resources required to enhance quality and ensure sustainability.

This debate has morphed into "Free versus Fee". It is not. Graduates should make a larger contribution to the cost of their higher education, which delivers higher lifetime earnings.

Doing this through the scheme proposed is fair and effective. There is no credible alternative available and doing nothing is not an option.

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