Cutting tuition fees misses the point. We need to overhaul the whole system

Friday, May 31, 2019

There are lots of good proposals in today’s Augar review of post-18 education and funding in England, including the restoration of maintenance grants for the poorest students, new funding opportunities for adult learners, and the expansion of further education colleges. Yet its downfall is that it fundamentally fails to grapple with the contradictions at the core of our marketised education system. As such, it gets some big calls wrong.

For starters, the review correctly notes the plight of further education thanks to a decade of underinvestment, but the welcome call for increased spending is balanced out in a “rob Peter to pay Paul”-style raid. It will leave universities facing real terms cuts of 11% over the next three years – cuts that, if realised, would leave universities billions of pounds worse off and damage students, staff and the UK’s academic capacity.

The report also critiques the idea that the value of education can be largely boiled down to its economic benefit to the individual. Yet the proposal to reduce student fees to £7,500, but only plug the funding gap this creates for so called high-value subjects, threatens huge damage to the arts and humanities.

Given the substantial social and economic benefit created by graduates in these areas (which is not captured by the earnings data the government is obsessed with), it could be a disaster in vital areas such as the public sector and the creative industries, as well as impoverishing our culture. The truth is that a healthy society needs arts and humanities as much as it needs science and technology; both are critical to our democracy.

The review recognises that student debt is a massive issue but instead of tackling the root of the problem – the absurd tuition fee system – it proposes a system which extends payment from 30 to 40 years. This will see the many graduates still paying off their student loans into their 60s.

The University and College Union’s research has shown that for many professionals, the current system creates very high effective marginal tax rates during middle age, making it difficult to contemplate buying a house or having children. Augar extends this pain to an age when most people are thinking of retiring.

The report also discusses in some detail the financial position of the university sector, noting the considerable social and economic importance of institutions to their local economies. Yet it concludes that the cost of bailing out a failing institution would be “prohibitively expensive” as well as morally hazardous.

The reality is that in the marketised sector we live in, this issue simply cannot be ducked. If universities and colleges have strategic importance, the government cannot sit on its hands while institutions go under. Doing so will damage students and unwind our academic capacity. We need to look to other countries which are opening, not closing, universities and colleges

There is an alternative to Augar: what is needed is a broader discussion of what further and higher education are for. The benefits that both sectors provide to society are substantial, not just in terms of return on state investment but also the massive social impacts that derive from having well-educated citizens.

If we accept that both further and higher education are vitally important to our society, it becomes clear that they should be funded centrally through taxes rather than their costs foisted onto the individual. One way to do this is to make big business pay more – after all, they benefit more than most from the productivity created by universities and colleges.

Playing a zero-sum game in which investment in further education results in cuts in higher education will lead only to less cohesion, more cuts and a worse deal for students. Both sectors need investment. While Augar failed to get to grips with the real issues we face in his 200 pages, my hope is that as the implications of his report become clear for students, staff and our sector, the campaign against the marketisation of education will redouble.

Source: The Guardian