The current fees system is a damaging way of making students contribute

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.

In unity,

Aaron Porter
Vice-President (Higher Education)
National Union of Students
E: [email protected]


  1. 1. Luckily, it’s not the role of the Government or the University to guarantee that one gets an education.

    2. Oooh, there’s that wonderful rational Government interference in the education system cropping up.

    3. Yes! They’re already doing such a great job, let’s widen their field!

    4. Of course – it isn’t enough to guarantee an education… jobs too! Give us jobs! And widescreen TVs! And foot massages! The social fabric will come apart, damn it!

    5. No, really? The Government can’t fund sending the entire population of students to University? Could it be that this country can’t afford to send everyone to University? Dare I say it: could it be that we shouldn’t be encouraging everyone to go?

    Here’s an idea: lift the caps. And remove Government funding of Universities. Allow full private sponsorship and funding of Universities. Reduce any power of the students to organise for the ceasing of funding that offends them (let them leave if they don’t like how the University makes its money).
    They question is not, “Should we privatise Further Education?” the question is, “By what moral right can you claim to force the rest of the country to support a Public Further Education system?”

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  2. “Luckily, it’s not the role of the Government or the University to guarantee that one gets an education.”

    Let me get this right… You think that a University that charges £3k a year for people to get an education shouldn’t do everything it can to make that possible? Isn’t the future of academia dependent on students receiving the best quality education so they can follow on in to the profession?

    Fortunately there are a great many people that think that the government should have a role in the education system.

    “Oooh, there’s that wonderful rational Government interference in the education system cropping up.”

    I think you missed Aaron’s point. The current system of issuing bursaries to those with the ability but not the financial resources to attend University is in a mess. If the financial contribution of students rises then the pressure on the already flawed bursary schemes will increase.

    “5. No, really? The Government can’t fund sending the entire population of students to University? Could it be that this country can’t afford to send everyone to University?”

    Now you are being silly. Aaron wasn’t suggesting that the loan system should be extended so that every single UK citizen be given a free pass in to University. He was simply arguing that if the loan value was increased to match a rise in fees then the government/SLC could not fund them at the current levels of people in University. This would mean that in all probability control for student loans would be handed over to commercial organisations who would charge commercial rates of interest.

    Also, he makes it very clear that ‘this country can’t afford to send everyone to University’.

    I could go on but the more I read your post, the more I realise you haven’t really read Aaron’s or grasped some of the basic issues in the debate.

    Oh the questions, as you put them, have nothing to do with ‘Further Education’. I think you are confusing Further Education with Higher Education.

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  3. “Here’s an idea: lift the caps. And remove Government funding of Universities. Allow full private sponsorship and funding of Universities. Reduce any power of the students to organise for the ceasing of funding that offends them (let them leave if they don’t like how the University makes its money).”

    Private companies are collapsing one after the other and your solution is more and more privatization. Here’s an idea Rory, take your dying right-wing rhetoric somewhere else, and spare us your quasi-fascist remarks concerning the strangulation of student movements.

    If you don’t like the NUS or the way Higher Education is funded, then I suggest you leave them. Let the rest of us decide for ourselves how we want to be represented on this matter.

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  4. Rory, that’s a stupid comment.

    1. Too many people are going to university for the education system to be free without an increase in taxation.

    2. There are many ways of paying for this increase in education. Businesses could pay, current alumni could pay, the government could increase upper-level income tax so that rich people could pay, flat-rate tuition fees could pay for it, graduation tax of some description etc. etc. (lots of other options)

    3. Businesses paying will damage the education quality. Current alumni shouldn’t pay more for our education. People oppose an income-tax increase.

    Allow me to mention a couple of things about the tuition fees system:

    1. Universities’ complaints about the current system is that they don’t get enough funding. They are unable to get the money that they need to both keep education high and keep research high.

    2. Students’ complaints about the current system is that they are paying too much. If I become a teacher, a nurse, a supermarket worker, a charity worker (etc.) I will NEVER pay off my tuition fee debt at the standard rate of repayment – I pay off less than the interest.

    Conclusion: We’re paying too much. They’re not getting enough. The system is BROKEN. Lowering fees without changing the system means that they’re getting even less. Increasing fees without changing the system means that we’re paying even more. The system is BROKEN.

    There are a ton of other problems with the HE and FE systems but on this one specific point I could argue you to death and out-rhetoric Plato, let alone just showing billions of pie charts, excel documents and graphs that explain in simple terms how stupid the system is!

    As things stand (assuming I will earn £20,000 per year after graduation), I will pay back £450 per year where the government’s inflation on my debt is approx £1500. That means that every year I will gain an additional GRAND of debt. And they want to RAISE THE CAP?!?!?!?!

    I have to say that honestly it has come to the point where I almost believe that anyone who supports the current system of tuition fees should resit their primary school maths lessons.

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  5. Oh and in response to this question – “by what moral right can you claim to force the rest of the country to support a Public Further Education system?”

    The answer is simple: we’re not America and our adult population aren’t recognised by the world to have had a failed education. It’s not anything to do with free education and it’s not just a matter of having affordable education – it’s also about not having a system in which people with the richer background get the better education. It’s about class fluidity, the possibility for people from poorer backgrounds to reach for the stars and for ANYONE, no matter the situation, to achieve their potential. The USA may let idiots like George W. Bush into their finest universities but we shouldn’t praise their system for it. We’re doing better than them, even if our universities are underfunded, and we should try to find *our own* way of fixing the education funding problems!

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  6. I don’t quite see what you’re suggesting Rory. Full private sponsorship and funding? There’s no way industry would come up with the amount of money required even to keep fees within a factor of their current amount, it would turn courses into glorified apprenticeships. Whilst not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it would vastly complicate the already confusing process of choosing a university in the first place.

    And what company is going to fund courses with limited specific uses? Such as masters courses in “post-war recovery”? Halliburton? ;-)

    I don’t agree with your theory that those who don’t wish to participate in further education shouldn’t have to pay for those who do (at least I think that’s what you’re getting at in your final paragraph). Aside from the fact that further education shouldn’t just be available to those who can afford it, the government has a massive, implicit stake in it. They have a huge interest in developing a knowledgeable and qualified body of people for future economic success of the country. One might argue that the majority of university graduates who achieve higher wages because of their qualifications, more than pay back what they consume in taxes during their education.

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  7. That’s actually a pretty good point, Mitch. If the advantage in going to university is that you earn £250,000 extra over the course of your life then you’re likely to spend an extra £80,000 (approx) on taxes and that more than makes up for the £9,000 of tuition fees that a standard 3-year degree would cost the public if it was free.

    p.s. Higher education is university, further education is a-levels etc.

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  8. Some of your arguments are solid, however there are a number of points I could make in response to this, but I will limit myself to one point alone. It is this: people really need to get this idea of ‘debt’ out of their minds with regard to tuition fees. To say that there is ‘no link between the debt you accrue and financial benefit’ is misguided and misleading on a number of levels.

    My understanding of the facts is this: the fees are not a debt. They are paid as a payroll deduction like any other but only once a graduate is earning £15k a year, at a set percentage rate of their earnings – i.e. repayments, nominally, vary in relation to earnings. What is more, the repayments only last 25 years, regardless of repayment rate – any amount outstanding after 25 years is written off, i.e. the repayment exercise is underwritten by the government – the taxpayer – in order to help those who do not find a good, solid job. Interest on the repayments is uprated at exactly the rate of inflation – i.e. there is no real-terms increase in the amount to be repaid, as there would be with an ordinary commercial loan.

    We each pay hundreds of thousands, even millions, in income tax throughout our working lifetimes (not just for the first 25 years of work) yet we do not consider this as a debt when we start work. Given that research shows that on the whole, those with a degree fare better than those without, we effectively feel directly the effects of the money we pay for tuition fees – quite unlike income tax, which is spread so widely and indiscriminately in terms of who benefits.

    Therefore, I strongly question the assertion made in the title of this article.

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