One of the most spectacular policy announcements of the recent general election campaign was Labour’s offer to scrap tuition fees for new students and abolish outstanding repayments for graduates. There was no attempt to link this to the NHS and social care funding crisis as the other great funding need. There was also no real vision for how this would sit alongside the need to remove the cap on public sector pay. However, it seems to have worked, like most much announcements, in this case attracting many young voters that would benefit from any removal of fees.
I notice that the Tory press has taken to blaming the Lib Dems for the present university student fee levels, this despite the fact that it was a decision of the coalition government, albeit taken by a Tory minister and presumably approved by both a Lib Dem Secretary of State and the Cabinet as a whole.
One of things that riled me at the time of the fee hike was the lack of any discussion on why classroom subjects should be assumed to cost the same as laboratory and practical subjects? I wonder if ministers thought the market would drive down prices but, as I have pointed out before, with demand far exceeding supply, there was no incentive for any university to anything other than tinker at the edges with the £9,000 fee levels.
So, are such fees justified for arts and humanities subjects? Well, much depends upon the size of the group and the number of hours taught. Fees at this level should allow for minority subjects cross-subsidised by more popular courses and lots of options within courses, even if only 25% of the fee income goes directly to teaching and the rest to legitimate university and departmental overheads. Of course the level of salary and the mix of experience of teaching staff also play a part, as they do in school finances. One cannot help feeling that universities are possibly also possibly funding future capital programmes and increasing their surplus funds from the fees being paid by current students. Both seem to me good reasons for re-assessing the balance between the price paid by students and the eventual cost to government.
I think university accounts should be much more transparent on how fee income is spent, especially between different types of course. Many years ago, I conducted research into the funding of teacher education courses and it was clear that at the £3,000 fee level universities that paid a fee to schools could not cover their costs and had them written off each year by the central administration. It would be interesting to repeat that exercise on the £9,000 fee level.
Personally, I think that there is a case for fees to be in the £6,000 range, to allow for funding of free nursery education that might be a casualty if fees were to be abolished, with a direct government top-up for specified STEM and other more expensive subjects that universities might need encouragement to develop. I certainly don’t want undergraduates subsidising either the summer conference trade or in most cases either research programmes or postgraduate taught courses.