So, Lord Browne’s report on Higher Education funding was released today. One of his recommendations is for the upper limit on fees to be raised. The government seem to agree this is potentially the best solution, and this seems to have upset people.
As far as I’m aware, there are two sides to the issue of university funding. The first is that universities are saying that they need more money, and the second is that no-one seems to want to pay. Both are understandable. That universities need more money seems to be largely accepted, so all of the discussion seems to focus around who pays for them.
Some say that education should be free, so tuition fees should be scrapped and universities funded out of taxation. I can understand the reasoning, but to my mind it’s pretty unrealistic and even marginally unfair. By getting a decent degree an individual draws certain benefits, be that in higher pay, or in getting a job which they find more enjoyable, or whatever. It therefore seems fair to me that an individual who wants a degree, pays at least something towards the cost of getting that degree. That said, I’d also agree that society as a whole benefits from having graduates – it’s good that we have engineers, doctors, scientists etc around (arts graduates probably less so ;) – so I also don’t think it’s unreasonable that the state partly subsidises the cost of degrees. Indeed, it’s an investment which almost certainly pays itself back, with interest.
I anticipate that someone might try to throw a curveball by saying that by this logic, I should say that even basic education (and by that I mean up to degree level) shouldn’t be paid for by the state. Exactly the same logic applies though; it’s a massive benefit to us all to have a population with a relatively good education (because it means the workforce is more capable). Additionally, everyone makes use of basic education services, not everyone goes to university. The two things are very different, so it’s easier to justify state financing of “basic” education (although perhaps less easy to justify state provision of that education).
Essentially, I don’t have a problem with fees. But at the same time, I think it’s crucial that the fees charged don’t make it impossible for some people to go to university. It would be tragic if people who would do well at university were stopped because they couldn’t afford it. In that sense, I think that the current loan system is pretty good. You don’t have to pay anything up-front, you only start paying the loan back when you earn over a certain threshold, it tracks inflation so is essentially free, and if you don’t pay it off after a certain period then it gets written off; I wish I could get such generous terms for my postgraduate loan! As far as I can see, the fee and loan system (coupled with the means-tested grants that are available) means that there is no practical financial reason stopping the vast majority of capable students who want to study a degree, irrespective of their financial background.
To my mind this is fair, even with the possibility of increased fees (in fact increasing the fees makes much sense to me). Especially when compared with the idea of “free” degrees. Because paying out of taxation doesn’t make them free, it just distributes the cost around everyone, and I don’t see why other people should be made to pay (completely) for something which will benefit me.
For what it’s worth, there are a lot of additional reasons I can think of for not ignoring the recommendations from the report; the argument presented here merely addresses the principle of tuition fees