Setting our universities free

by Stephen Tall on May 9, 2006

The liberal think-tank, Centre Forum, today publishes a thoughtful report I hope all Liberal Democrats will take the time to read. It argues for an end to a party touchstone: our popular (but wholly wrong) opposition to student tuition and top-up fees.

My day job is as an educational fund-raiser, has been for eight years now. I spend my professional life surrounded by students, many of whom come from poor backgrounds and whose lives will be utterly transformed – in ways they cannot possibly predict – by their university experience. I am a passionate advocate for the value of higher education, both in its own terms, and as a route to a better life: ‘through learning one learns to live well’.

It is because university education is so important that I believe it deserves proper funding: enough money not only to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds can continue to access its opportunities, but also to enable universities to invest in their human and physical capital. It is only through that meritocracy and that investment that we can ensure those opportunities in a century’s time will be far, far greater than they are today.

That investment can only come through the lifting of the fee cap on universities, and the ability for our universities to charge market tuition fees. There is simply no way this Government, or a future government (regardless of its political complexion), will be able to levy sufficient new taxation to fund our universities’ aspirations if they are to be able to continue to compete with the world’s best. The billions of pounds of new money needed each year would prove politically unacceptable.

This leaves higher education institutions trapped in a vice. They are not sexy enough to compete with schools or hospitals for serious cash from the Treasury; yet they are prevented by the Government from charging those students who can afford it the true cost of the education they provide.

We have a simple choice in the UK.

We can provide a just-about-functioning higher education system, free for all, in which universities are stifled by government interference, tutors are under-paid and over-worked, and our currently respected institutions decline relative to their peers in North America (and, increasingly, the Far East).

Or we can set universities free, allow them to charge variable fees, provide generous bursaries to the least well-off so that means-blind admissions are guaranteed, pay tutors a living wage and reward them for their research, and ensure our universities continue to rank among the world’s best.

I know which future I prefer.

The first article I wrote for my website urged the introduction of market tuition fees for higher education. I concluded saying:

The Liberal Democrats can, and (I am sure) will, continue to campaign to scrap tuition and ‘top-up’ fees; and will gain popular support for doing so. But it is a policy which fails to address how British universities can remain world class institutions. Market tuition fees are the only way to generate enough cash to ensure the retention of this country’s teaching talent, and the continuation of popular but uneconomic subjects. The longer we pretend the government alone can pull the rabbit out of the hat, the more likely it is we will one day find the lady has been sawn in half while we were looking the other way.