The end of university as we know it

Tuition fees are likely to double or even treble and funding for university teaching is to be cut by up to 80 per cent under plans revealed last week. The proposals would shift the burden of financing university education almost entirely onto the shoulders of students and their families.

The Browne Review of higher education funding, which reported last Tuesday, recommended that the cap on tuition fees be scrapped and that the government should no longer contribute funds directly to university teaching, except in specific “priority” subjects (see sidebar opposite: Key points of the Browne report). Although the report was independent from government, there are indications that the coalition is likely to pass significant portions of it.

In a related development, government funding for university teaching will be cut from £3.9 billion to £700 million, a cut of 79 per cent, the BBC has reported. This is in addition to expected £1 billion cuts to research funding – giving a total reduction of £4.2 billion. Sources confirmed that cuts on this scale are to be expected from the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which reports tomorrow. A University spokesperson declined to comment on the cuts until after the CSR reports.

The plans for withdrawing government funding for teaching and allowing universities to set their own fees indicate a radical programme of marketisation of the higher education sector. Browne argued that under his plans, “the money will follow the student who will follow the quality. The student is no longer taken for granted, the student is in charge.”

He continued: “Students do not pay anything upfront. Only graduates pay and only then, when affordable according to the level of their earnings. Under our proposals, the bottom 20 per cent of earners will pay less than today and only the top 40 per cent of earners will pay back close to the full amount.”

The plan’s alleged benefits have not convinced student leaders.

“It accepts at face value the lazy myth that competition on price between universities leads to higher quality. … It ignores the probability that at much higher fee levels, prospective students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – will change their behaviour and make judgements primarily on cost and debt. It fails to tackle the biggest questions in higher education. … Instead, it imagines that … fundamental questions shouldn’t be ‘answered’ at all, but left to the ‘invisible hand of the market’ to resolve. This is complacent and dangerous,” said Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students (NUS).

Warwick Students’ Union echoed these sentiments. In a statement, the SU said: “By completely removing the cap the plan would unleash a market in Higher Education which would inevitably lead to students making choices about their future based on their parental income and not their academic ability.”

Education Officer Sean Ruston added that cuts of 80 per cent “essentially represent the privatisation of the higher education sector. This is not merely a spending cut in line with deficit reduction but an ideologically driven privatisation agenda.”

Ruston also noted that the disproportionately severe cut to higher education is due to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, ringfencing funding for further education, shifting the burden of his department’s cuts onto the higher education sector. Most government departments are expecting an overall reduction in funding of 20 to 30 per cent, rather than the 80 per cent cut to higher education funding.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers, has joined with the NUS in opposing the cuts and fee hikes.

“It is hard to believe that any government could contemplate making £4.2bn cuts to higher education given that it generates massive economic growth,” said Sally Hunt, the chair of the UCU.

On the subject of higher fees, Hunt said: “This is a savage attack on what a university is and what it can offer to all students … as it effectively privatises the cost of higher education from state to family. … As a result of this creation of a market for student places, we would see departments and universities close and a devastating effect on the curriculum as only so-called priority courses survive.”

Despite opposition from student and academic leaders, the Government has indicated its support for the proposals.

“As a strategic direction the government believes the report is on the right lines,” said Vince Cable.

The report’s recommendation of higher fees will be fiercely opposed by many Liberal Democrat MPs, and may threaten the stability of the coalition government. Prior to the election, all sitting Lib Dem MPs signed an NUS pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, though the coalition agreement only allows them to abstain. It appears as though many Liberal Democrats will break their pre-election pledges and vote to implement Browne’s recommendations. “In the current financial situation … which we inherited, all pledges, all commitments, will have to be re-examined from first principles,” said Cable.

Despite indications that at least some Lib Dems will vote for the Browne Review, Warwick SU and the NUS will be focusing their campaign on lobbying Liberal Democrat MPs to honour their pledge, acknowledging that this approach is more likely to succeed than trying to turn Conservative MPs against a market-based approach to higher education.

Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor, Nigel Thrift, also endorsed the proposals as the only option left to cash-strapped universities.

Thrift said: “[The] cuts will pose a significant challenge for our sector, particularly as it has long been accepted that the higher education system is actually in need of substantially more investment rather than cuts.

“Currently Universities have few, if any, options available to them to cope with such a significant cut other than the option outlined in the Browne Review. Many commentators expect that universities will have little choice but to charge an undergraduate student fee of at least £6,000 simply to cope with the expected cut in university funding.”

Leamington MP Chris White also indicated his support for the Review. He commented in a local newspaper: “I believe that our university system should be fairer and more accessible. The Review recommends changes to the payment structure which will mean that less wealthy graduates pay less and that wealthier graduates pay more. This is something that I support as it will ensure that people from all economic backgrounds get a fair chance to go to university.”

The NUS and UCU are planning a joint demonstration against the proposed changes on 10 November in London. Warwick SU and UCU are sending several coaches from the University to London for the demonstration. Ruston hopes to take more than 200 students to the demo.


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