Since the 1950s the state has been the primary funder of higher education and it has alternatively yanked (for example, under Thatcher) and loosened (for example, under Blair) the supply of funding to strengthen and multiply the reins it has tied to the sector. The sector’s dependency on state funding encouraged it to acquiesce to the government’s agenda: more students, taken from a wider range of backgrounds, educated more cheaply and churned out as highly employable graduates. When the state realised that the sector couldn’t square the triangle of delivering greater volume, at the same quality and at a lower cost, it reluctantly agreed that students, as the third element of the trinity of beneficiaries of economy, society and individual, should also make a contribution. The fee was capped because the state didn’t wholly trust the sector to deliver on its part of the bargain in terms of both diversifying the profile of the student population and delivering for the economy. The promise was if we did a good job then the level of the cap would be reviewed. Lord Browne was recently given that task.
The context to the review, however, has changed. There is a different and more pressing question than whether the balance of contribution between the state and the student should change, but what role the sector will have to play in cutting the national deficit? Restricting an increase in fees to those students keen to study banking and finance may be perversely cathartic but it wouldn’t plug either the government’s funding gap or the one asserted by the sector. Not surprisingly therefore fees are set to increase for all students, and why not? The privatisation of the sector which has been gloomily predicted every year since records began, by a handful of academics, and administrators, wishing to lie undisturbed on their pillows of state cash, is now to come to pass. And about time too.
Evidently, the shift in funding from the state to the student, and the opening of the door to private providers, isn’t an indication that the state is about to take a back seat; some funding reins will remain and the legislative whip is always at the ready. A higher cap or no cap at all will present the sector with challenges which, to the detriment of students, it was able to sidestep when the cap was too low and, as a result, the market too immature. Consequently, teaching will achieve parity with research. A technical or vocational education will achieve parity with a classical one. The sector will develop more sophisticated mechanisms for understanding the experience of students than an annual survey to check whether they feel satisfied. Individual universities will reflect on their missions and recognise what really differentiates what they have to offer from that offered by the other university two miles away: the one offering duplicate courses supported by a duplicated administration in an overlapping estate. A privatised sector won’t require the overhead of a quality agency as the newly empowered student customer will drive improvements in quality. The sector’s commitment to education will ensure needs-blind admissions policies. And, in order to exploit their new pricing freedom effectively universities will know what costs what, and what value students place on which disciplines, leaving universities to decide how, and why, to retain philosophy at £3,000 per place rather than, or as well as, expanding banking and finance at £10,000 per place. We should be careful what we wish for.
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