Tuition fees: £7,000 needn’t be a “crunch point”

Once again the issue of university funding has reared its head. As is often the case, the government has turned to an independent review for a solution. And as with a lot of reviews of this nature, the likely result is already fairly well known. It will almost certainly be to raise the tuition fee cap, probably to £7,000.

However, there is a difficulty. A recent survey by the Sutton Trust suggests that £7,000 might be something of a “crunch point” at which students’ willingness to pay noticeably starts to drop away. Before any discussion of fees, 80% said they would like to go to University, but this dropped to 45% when the £7,000 figure was suggested. Universities therefore face a problem. Either they can pick a figure between the current £3,250 and the increased cap that maximises their revenue or they can attempt to encourage more people to enrol even if the fees are increased. Assuming at least some will want to do the latter there are a couple of proposals I would like to make beyond the obvious advertising campaigns.

The first and perhaps most obvious would be for universities to cut course length. This would reduce the burden on the taxpayer and particularly on the student. It would also enable the student to enter the workforce a year earlier and to benefit from the additional earnings.

A second proposal, again at the discretion of individual universities, would be for a portion of the fees to be paid if and when the graduate starts a job with a salary above a pre-arranged threshold. This would remove some of the risk for a prospective student as their debt would be reduced if their degree did not significantly benefit them. It would also encourage universities to offer courses that improved employment prospects and would give them an incentive to provide a reasonable amount of careers assistance.

Either of these proposals would significantly decrease the obvious cost disincentive to go to university and would enable the better universities to shine, while those which offered courses which were not generally employment friendly would find it difficult to cover their costs. These measures fall short of the radical changes many (including myself) would like to see in higher education but would nevertheless significantly improve the situation without overhauling the entire system.

I like the idea of risk-sharing between students and universities. At the moment the risk is shared between the student loan company (ie ultimately the taxpayer) and the student.
I am very suspicious of the general proposition that fees have to rise substantially if quality is to be improved. Universities organise their activities around a pre-industrial calendar which suits their employees and cross-subsidise to an enormous extent.

Universities in the UK tend to be extremely ‘top-heavy’ in my experience with legions of managers commanding salaries 2-3 times or more that of a lecturer – those people who actually teach and conduct the research, the core output of any university. Further, there can be no denying the nation simply has too many universities: in Scotland alone there are 16 universities for a population of around 5 million. The way forward is to free the universities from government control and allow them to operate as private entities … let the market sort it out: a 30-40% reduction in the number of universities would probably be the first result.

Some solid points Ralph, but would £7000 really be the cut off point? Future rises in tuition fees are surely inevitable.This is systematic of our quasi socialistic system in higher education. Surely the best best -albeit most radical- solution would be to stop all government subsidies in the form of tuition fees and student loans.Take the US in the 1950’s as a case in point; an average student could afford to attend college simply by working a seasonal part time job. The accessibility and pervasiveness of subsidised student loans has put immense upward pressure on fees. Universities have become bloated bureaucratic affairs thanks to government intervention.

Subsidies should stop here. Grants should be awarded to outstanding students with no economical means.
Why should I pay through taxes the “Art History” degree of a pampered young lady that doesn’t know what to do with her life?

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