The imminent review into Higher Education funding is crucial, it will not just have an impact on students over the coming years, but for generations. And I need to be clear from the outset, there are University Vice-Chancellors right across the UK actively and openly lobbying for a significant lifting of the cap on fees (currently set at £3,145), many wanting the annual cap to raised to £5,000 or £7,000, but some have said they would not oppose a cap at £20,000 a year. This is the opposition we face.
We have seen a significant shift in the way in which students see higher education, an increasing number of students regard themselves as consumers, rather than as part of an academic community. For me, there is no one reason behind this, but rather a combination; the introduction of fees, the league table culture, increased pressure on academic staff, business mentality from institutions – just to name a few.
Certainly the introduction of fees particularly has significantly shifted the student perspective. Many see their £3,000 a year fees as an investment, a transaction where they expect something, namely a degree in return. The move away from a University being considered the place where a student can pursue knowledge has been startling.
Yet I understand that institutions have needed a boost in income to try and retain a place at the top table of global higher education in an ever increasing field. The easiest argument to put forward is that Government needs to make more of a commitment to higher education, and I believe they do. Yet I see from experience that in the limited pot that the treasury have at their disposal higher education doesn’t always appear as high up the list as we might like, with the public prioritising other areas such as health, primary education, secondary education, policing, transport and defence. Together we need to get better at making the argument for increased investment in higher education, we often fail to do this, and as a result lose out in the internal allocation of Government spending. I still maintain that the Government should, at the very least match OECD average on higher education, and it is shameful that we don’t currently.
However I recognise that the current Government, and any likely future Government, will not be prepared to remove the student contribution altogether, it is right that we should look to address the question of how students can make a contribution in a fairer way, rather than whether they will make one or not. But before I look to propose a solution, I would like to highlight a number of fatal flaws with the current system:
1. The Government sought to introduce a variable market in fees (capped at £3,000), in many ways they have failed as nearly all institutions charge the full fee. However if the cap were to be lifted, there will clearly come a point when market forces will take over, and different institutions will charge different amounts. Institutions will only be able to fix their price based on their perceived position in the league table hierarchy, but worse still, many students will be forced to make decisions on where to study based on what they can afford, and not their ability.
2. The current system of bursary allocation is haphazard and inconsistent across UK institutions, currently it benefits the institutions that are least successful at widening participation.
3. The system of fees is structured around the full-time undergraduate, but doesn’t take into account the needs of part-time students.
4. Graduates are guaranteed debt, but there is no guarantee of financial success. There is no link between the debt you accrue, and the financial benefit you may or may not obtain afterwards (a teacher will pay the same as a high flying lawyer).
5. The treasury cannot continue to provide student loans under the current conditions if the cap was lifted.
A full critique of the current system can be downloaded from NUS’ report published in September 2008, ‘Broke & Broken’.
I am clear that as we approach the upcoming review into fees, the higher education community, led by students, need to demonstrate that the current market system is a damaging way of making students contribute. I am confident that NUS has taken the right decision by deciding to tackle the question of how graduates should contribute, rather than whether they should or not. But to criticise the current system is in many ways the easy part, it is much harder to come up with our solution of our own, but this is exactly what NUS is currently pursuing, and ultimately we will have a fully costed economic model, outlining a different vision for the student contribution.
As we approach the circulation of our model for a new system of higher education funding, we have published this document which examines the principals which will underpin our new system.
Your feedback on the principals we have published, and on how NUS should approach the upcoming funding review is always welcome. If you would like to get actively involved in the campaign, it would be particularly great to hear from you.
Vice-President (Higher Education)
National Union of Students
E: [email protected]