What I think about tuition fees (1 of 4): why I support them

by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2010

Tuition fees: two words that have caused Lib Dem members enough angst in the past month to last the party a parliament.

Let me declare my interests straight off: I’m a university graduate who left the year after tuition fees kicked in, received a small but incredibly useful maintenance grant, and whose debts after three years totalled less than £1k. (At the time it seemed a scary amount, now it looks puny.) I was, therefore, one of the fortunate generation… not as lucky as the baby-booming ’60s’ generation, but lucky all the same.

My recognition that higher education transformed my life is what has partly motivated my decision to work in educational fundraising. It is also why I set up two monthly direct debits to support projects at my university, and have included it in my will.

It is also why I support higher tuition fees for undergraduates. I’ve rehearsed the reasons many times before* so I’ll choose here just three reasons:

    1. There is a clear choice facing society and facing students: we can continue to starve universities in the UK of the cash they need to compete globally; or we can recognise the need for them to start charging a realistic fee in order to offer the best education they can. Even if we taxed the bankers more, or increased higher-rate taxation, or put a penny on income tax the fact remains UK universities would continue to have fewer resources than our counterparts overseas in the US, or the emerging universities in China and India.

    2. Even if the Lib Dems won the argument to increase taxation to fund improved higher education, and even if that were to be enough to guarantee top-quality education to all students — both highly dubious assumptions — I would still be opposed. First, we need to sort out the quality of nursery, primary and secondary education: what resources the government will be able to muster in the next few years should be directed there, at an age where it will make the most difference to kids from poorer backgrounds, the kids who at the moment rarely get within touching distance of university.

    3. In any case, I believe it is right in principle that students should contribute to their education, so long as no-one has to pay upfront, and only pays back once they can afford to do so (as the government is recommending). Some students are entering university not because they want to do so, nor because their working lives will be greatly improved by a degree, but simply because it is expected… by their parents, their school or society. And some universities are offering degrees not because they’re academically rigorous, nor because it contributes to cutting-edge research or the economy, but simply because it is expected. That makes no sense, and it’s the kind of thing which will disappear as fees begin to reflect the actual costs of funding them.

Tomorrow: What I think about tuition fees (2 of 4): that pledge.

* Here are eight articles I’ve written over the past five years dealing with the issue of tuition fees:


New post: What I think about tuition fees (1 of 4): why I support them http://bit.ly/c78D56

by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2010 at 2:40 pm. Reply #

I think I probably support the idea of people paying more for their education, and the government less, although I am concered that higher education isn’t really operable on market lines and we will get a mixture of cost inflation and a rather narrow focus of courses. After all the vast majority of people will only be going to get the best jobs, and there’s no reason to think their number will expand massively, meaning the universities have a rather captive market.

Do you think there is anything positive or negative about the shift to consumer-led payments, other than it allows more money?

More generally though I wonder if your contention that universities need more money to ‘compete globally’ is misplaced. First, on the whole universities should be competing particularly? Second, in that they compete for students, how many universities in the UK really are competing with ones overseas? Even after a large influx of foreign students UK nationals are still overrepresented by a factor of about 90 times.

by Matthew on November 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm. Reply #

Why @stephentall supports tuition fees http://bit.ly/d9VuAM He's been consistent in his views on this for years, so no volte face here.

by Lonely Wonderer on November 4, 2010 at 4:14 pm. Reply #

RT @LonelyWonderer: Why @stephentall supports tuition fees http://bit.ly/d9VuAM He's been consistent in his views on this for years, so …

by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm. Reply #


Thanks for the comments. Not sure I agree about the captive market — I think providers other than universities (eg, FE colleges) will offer alternative, cheaper courses to those whose future careers (including well-paid jobs) don’t actually require a 3-year degree. Most sectors which are deregulated expand and pluralise assuming barriers to entry aren’t prohibitive. That’s what I’d expect to happen in higher education.

All universities compete for talent, whether students or faculty — less so on the undergraduate side of things than for world-class researchers (whether post-grads or professors), as they’re the life-blood of research-intensive universities. They are also a highly mobile workforce who will go to whichever university offers them the best chance to advance their scholarship — including has the best facilities, and at least comparable remuneration.

by Stephen Tall on November 5, 2010 at 9:38 am. Reply #

Thanks Stephen for taking the time to reply.

I see your point in the first paragraph, and you might turn out to be right, certainly this kind of model seems desirable. Practically though I wonder whether university places are more like housing, ie the its the limited supply that makes them desirable.

Similarly in the second paragraph, surely there are only a set number of ‘world-class researchers’, and the supply cannot be expanded that much? So giving UK universities huge budgets will allow them to thrive for while, but only until other universities increase their budgets and so on. Facility investment is somewhat different, I agree.

by Matthew on November 5, 2010 at 10:49 am. Reply #

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