Tuition fee discussion in the UK – “It’s time to set fees free”

This is the best way to maintain standards while at the same time serving public benefit, argues Aldwyn Cooper

Some of us look back to the golden era of the Fifties and Sixties when a bright state school pupil had the opportunity to get a council scholarship to public school and then go on to any university, fees free, in receipt of a generous subsistence grant that covered bed, board, books and beer.

The scheme was not fully equitable then, and now it could not meet the needs of UK higher education in an increasingly competitive global market. There is no appetite in the UK for increased investment in higher education to be paid out of taxation. It is likely that the government budget for the sector will soon be reduced considerably.

The only answer is student tuition fees, but at what level?

My institution is in the private, not-for-profit, sector. We receive nothing from government funds. All our students pay full fees – even though half are from European Union countries and could attend any UK university, but choose to pay our fees. Why? It is because they are discerning consumers who are buying the learning experience they want to give them a return in the longer term.

Whether public or private, in order to decide on fee levels we need to look at what we believe the sector should deliver and explode a number of myths that linger on.

I still have the romantic view that universities are the engine room for the generation and debate of ideas and philosophies. Managed correctly, this centrality of thought is the starting point for contribution to local and national economies, commercial research and international impact.

UK higher education should fight to hold its position as the gold standard, providing first-class education and intellectual leadership. It is simply impossible to do this on current funding levels. Recruiting large numbers of international students and failing to support them effectively is not a solution and is starting to do irrevocable damage to the UK’s reputation worldwide.

In an equitable society, every individual who has the potential to benefit from study should be provided with the best possible opportunity. This does not imply an arbitrary participation figure set by politicians. It is no use spending vast amounts of public money to recruit students and then failing to retain them. It reinforces their sense of failure.

Most arguments about fees appear to take it as axiomatic that all institutions offer the same experience, have the same needs and that a first-class degree from one has the same value as from another. This is patently absurd. So why should the fee be fixed at a level that is unrelated to experience or long-term value?

The reason given is social equity. It is suggested that the fees that could be charged by the large metropolitan universities are almost at the maximum now. However, they face the strongest challenges of recruitment and retention in creating the social change that is a major part of their role. It has been suggested that a “regrettable” rise to £5,000 a year may accommodate this and may just be acceptable.

But why restrict everybody to the value that the metropolitans can charge? It is argued that the fees the best universities could charge would be a deterrent to financially disadvantaged students unable to take on the levels of debt. However, the truth is that Britain’s top universities have always been enthusiastic about students with the best potential, no matter their background. Most wish to become fees-blind in the longer term.

Allowing them to set fees at the same levels as international competitors would enable them to offer major bursary schemes. This would enhance social mobility more effectively than the current system and would fund additional research excellence.

Also, is it not absurd that we allow people to pay substantial sums to private schools to enhance their prospects of getting into top institutions, then do nothing to ensure that they continue to contribute at an appropriate level at university?

Institutions in the state and private charitable sectors must operate for public benefit. This means providing access to those who would not otherwise be able to gain entry to the most appropriate programmes. Therefore, the time has come to take a deep breath, remove the fees cap and let the market float.

Source: Cooper, A. (2009), “It’s time to set fees free” Times Higher Education [online]. Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=409137&c=1 [Accessed on 23 November 2009]

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