This is something we as students should take an interest in, but I am finding it difficult quantifying exactly how we, as members of the Conservative Futures movement, should do that. Which leaves me wondering; what is our opinion on this subject?
I am not merely asking for an opinion; for in a moment I will state the reason I am writing this article, the context and background of my opinion, and then what I believe with regards tuition fees
A London Student article (ULU’s Independent Student Newspaper: http://www.london-student.net/2008/10/07/mega-fees/) stated recently that the Conservative Higher Education Minister, Rob Wilson, approached NUS President Wes Streeting and VP Higher Education, Aaron Porter at the Party Conference and asked them what they thought of a plan to increase fees amongst Russell Group Universities. This proposal is remarkably similar to one that London Student reported the Policy Exchange to be working on, alongside LSE Professor Julian Le Grand (the man ‘widely viewed as the architect of top up fees’) and Anna Fazackerley, the Director of education think tank AGORA.
This as yet unpublished proposal seeks effectively to create a British ‘Ivy League,’ making the top universities private, potentially allowing them to charge up to £20,000 a year for tuition. Double what they are currently charging overseas students.
If this is true, then quite surprisingly I find myself appalled at the notion, and I will go into more detail as to why. However I find myself surprised to be appalled because I do not oppose top up fees, or even the proposed potential increase (£5,000 to £10,000), unlike the NUS, who vehemently detest the idea of such a move. Last year I had had NUS Officer Training, which gave me the benefit of knowing the rhetoric and the reasons behind the rhetoric.
However, a British ‘Ivy League’ (consisting of Oxford, Cambridge, the larger University of London colleges – UCL, KCL, Imperial, LSE etc., and a handful of others) would be, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction.
Fees will have to be increased come 2010, regardless of the stance of the financially precarious NUS. I don’t believe it will be the end of accessibility, because as Malcolm Grant (Provost of UCL) said in a recent Guardian article, there will be “safeguards to protect less well-off students”. UCL for example (placed 7th Globally according to the Times Higher Education Supplement – QS World Ranking) is a university which has to cater for 20,000 students and cover the cost of 8,500 staff, as well as support a £1.4bn estate in central London. Its income is approximately £600 million. Its expenditure, I can accurately state, is a little higher than that. Oxford however is reporting a “grave deficit”, according to the university’s Vice-Chancellor, John Hood.
Now we ought to remember that fees are not the only source of revenue for UK or US universities. Much of the income for UK universities comes from organisations such as the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC), from revenue generated by business spin offs and investments, from donations and alumni, and also from the tax payers; the government. The rest (normally about 30% for the larger universities) comes from fees. The US however has the donations, alumni & endowments income stream down to an art form. Some such as Stanford University have huge endowment funds, worth $17bn (£8.5bn), which makes UCL’s target to raise a further £600 million, using the ‘American model’ look like an exercise in getting spare change.
Universities should be innovative when it comes to finding funding sources, and efficient when it comes to using that money, running themselves, and delivering their services; whether it be world class research and innovation, or teaching to undergraduate and postgraduate students. That is how the market system does, and will continue to work best for universities in the UK. But to suggest fees should be raised to the ‘Ivy League’ level would make the best universities exclusive to only the very wealthy and overseas students, deterring many “hardworking and talented students” from the UK who wouldn’t want to be saddled with huge levels of debt (Quote from Chris Kidman, Head of Sixth Form at St Aidan’s, a comprehensive school in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, in the London Student article of 7th October 2008). This would not only stifle diversity at the universities themselves, but could also have the disastrous adverse effect of lowering standards across further education Colleges, since A level students might no longer see themselves as viable candidates, on cost alone, for our top universities.
Our universities need the money, so regardless of NUS opposition, I hope they raise fees (to a reasonable level), otherwise due to lack of funds they could slip slowly into mediocrity; but lets not raise fees so high that we close the doors of opportunity to British students, thereby draining our universities of an eager, vital and innovative group of people.
By Dominic Tarn.