As we engage in the Higher Education Funding Debate, we must all keep a couple of points in mind: One, we must be pragmatic, we cannot fight for a situation that is simply not possible or unjustifiable; if we were to say that we believed in a free education that would be fine, provided we could respond with a reasoned and persuasive argument when someone answers our statement with a simple question: why? Two, Universities charge top-up fees, this battle was lost, the war may not yet be over, but that particular battle is long gone, we need to stop licking our wounds and move on. We will not be able to stop Universities charging fees under the current system, either we argue the whole Higher Education System needs to change, or we accept fees, try to make them fairer and stop them increasing to unaffordable and unsustainable levels.
What are the problems?
In order to fully address the problems in Higher Education Funding, the government must first address the problems in education itself and their ridiculous target setting. Last year, only 45.8% of school children attained the equivalent of five GCSEs at grade C or above when one includes English and Maths (the government?s ?gold standard?). David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce branded this figure ?unacceptable?. ?Instead of leaving school ready for the world of work, too many teenagers simply do not have the necessary skills to enter the workforce?; the government seem to have heeded this message, their target is that these school children will not enter the workforce but the Universities. The question must be asked: If fewer than 50% of the nation?s school children are capable of attaining five GCSE?s at grade A*-C, how can 50% of the nation?s school leavers be of the standard required to attain a degree?
The biggest problem with Higher Education Funding is that there are now so many people in higher education that there is not enough money to pay for them. Should our Union be calling for a system that increases the number of people in University regardless of whether or not these people have the aptitude or ability to study to degree level? The answer to this question can never be yes, our Union should be concerned with our students and our students suffer from their degrees being devalued by a large number of graduates without the skills required by employers; they suffer from a lack of funding as money is being diverted to pay for ?Mickey Mouse? degrees at other institutions. These degrees and the access to them is not the concern of our Union, our line should be what is best for our students, that of fewer, better funded University places. We can call for a free education for our current and future members, but only at the cost of a free education for others, whether or not we should do this is up to you.
Is a free market the right thing?
Some people may hold some of the American Universities as being evidence that uncapped fees and a free market can work. For example, Harvard charges the full economical cost of its degrees, about £17,000 per person per year but is a socially inclusive University that actively seeks out the best qualified applicants regardless of social background. If these students cannot pay the fees, there are numerous bursaries available in order to allow them to commence or continue their studies, the system works. The problem is that no British University, not even our oldest University, Oxford, has the money to do this. Perversely, British Universities simply cannot afford to charge the full economic cost because they do not have enough money.
Where does the current system fall down?
One of the worst things with the current system is the means testing that determines how much one must find from other sources is based on the income of others. There is no obligation on a parent to pay the parental contribution, but their income is taken into account when it is decided how much money a pupil has to contribute to their education. The system in place does not adequately determine the ability to pay either so there are situations where the parental contribution is set at an unaffordable level for the parents; the parents cannot provide the student with this money and so the student loses out.
Another critical issue is the interest rate on the student loan, an integral part of Higher Education Funding. This has just been hiked from 2.4%, in line with inflation as it was always marketed, to 4.8% and no-one blinked. Rail fares went up by 4% and it was headline news, student loans go up by more and the Unions whose job it is to protect student interests say nothing. The current funding system has gone from a not-for-profit system where, in real terms, one paid back only what one borrowed to a profit-making enterprise for the companies that are buying the debt of the government.
Where can we go from here?
Despite the above problems, the current method is, strangely, not that far from a good model but it very definitely comes under the banner of so near, and yet so far. Lending students money in order for them to live is not a good situation; they are forced into debt, this is not borrowing because they want a better car or newer clothes or the latest gadgets, this is borrowing because they need to eat. I have seen first-hand the problems this can cause, I have seen students (and been one myself) who pay their halls rent only to find that they then only have a couple of pounds per week left or, even worse, their rent bill is higher than their loan amount. This is a separate problem but needs to be considered at the same time as we consider the source of the funding, the amount of money available must be enough to live on, not less than the rent charged by the institution at which one is studying. I know of students who have lived almost exclusively on porridge for over a month as it was about all they could afford, how and when can a funding method that reduces a highly able and gifted student at one of the world?s best institutions to a diet one would more expect from an aid package ever be considered fair or adequate? As we consider how the gap between governmental funding to an institution and the real cost of the education is funded, we should also consider how a student?s living costs are funded, is a loan the right thing, is there a better way of doing it?
The current system essentially creates an account to pay off the cost of one?s education. Repayments are based on one?s earnings until this cost is paid, had the interest rate really been the rate of inflation, one would only be paying what one?s education cost. Had the loan not been means tested and based on the income of others but automatically provided it would not have been seen as a loan by many people and would have less stigma attached. One would be paying for their education based on their graduate salary.
A possible model would be that Universities charge top-up fees to meet the gap between the amount of money the government pays the University per student (and no more than this, institutions should never be profiting from tuition fees) and this cost is recorded in an education account linked to National Insurance. Graduates then pay off an amount of this debt based on their annual salary with the value of the account adjusted only for inflation. A time limit on repayments (similar to the age limit of 50 now in force) should be imposed with a set amount to be repaid each year, if a graduate does not earn enough money in the year to make that repayment, the remainder should be written off, the repayments then become dependent on the graduate?s salary not that of their parents.