Labour have just announced their plan to reduce annual student tuition fees from £9000 to £6000. It has been four years since they provisionally announced it and press have been suggesting that it's been the subject of bitter debates behind the scenes. But now it's official, a cast-iron promise and a red line in any coalition negotiations.
Labour are probably doing it in a direct appeal to younger voters who might be tempted over to the Greens. Labour introduced tuition fees in the first place and then raised them to £3k, despite saying they wouldn't, so they don't exactly have clean hands on this. And it's a high-risk strategy because what if their ability to form a coalition founders on this issue and this issue alone? It would make them look principled but arbitrary. On the other hand, if they drop the policy they may be condemned to the same fate as the Liberal Democrats who have not recovered from dropping their front-page opposition to higher student fees. And will it even work? Students are quite difficult to persuade to turn out at elections: compared to the Tories latest bribe to pensioners, it might be ineffective politics.
But I think it's a good idea and let me say why. Universities have, since 2010 (and on-and-off before that) been re-described not as centres of learning but as career-focused knowledge-providers, institutions designed to make their students super-employable at higher salaries than mere school leavers. This has been the justification for higher fees. The older notion of the universities as places centred on knowledge and understanding for their own sake has almost entirely disappeared. And yet, I would suggest, that this is the principle that virtually all academics in the university system believe in. Universities are a place where ideas should be imagined, developed, tested, disputed and debated, without immediate concern for practical application or even good taste. (This is why I'm totally opposed to there being blacklists on speakers, whether they be transphobic feminists or radical hate preachers, however much I dislike their positions.) Universities are privileged spaces in the best sense and they are there not just to contribute to GDP and growth (though assuredly they do that) but also to the betterment of ourselves and our culture.
The Coalition don't seem to like this. They are ideologically driven by market thinking and so nothing can have value in its own right; its value can only be revealed through market transactions. The ideologues of marketising the universities would undoubtedly see my comments above as an instance of 'producer capture': universities being run for the benefit of their staff, not their students - sorry, 'knowledge customers'. Hiking the tuition fee was the privatisation of university teaching; it passed the cost from the Treasury to the individual students. As such, the idea was to turn students into savvy consumers who would be more demanding of the education they receive.
I have some evidence - direct and anecdotal - that this has had some effect. Students have probably been a bit more demanding - and, to my mind, that's a good thing; students should be demanding and deserve get the best possible experience. The issue, though, is that the higher fees have not simply made students more demanding of the university experience; the fees have encouraged some students to demand a totally different kind of university experience. I hear from colleagues (fortunately, not at my institution) whose students have complained about their essays getting low marks on the basis that they are paying £9k per year, as if students are paying for a degree, rather than paying for tuition and the chance to achieve one. I have heard of students who skip classes justifying their absenteeism on the basis that they are paying so they can do what they like. I have heard of students who have claimed the right to determine the content of their course, to study just those things they are familiar with already and 'enjoy' (which is, at best, a marginal consideration when it comes to deciding the content of a course). I am sure that no one, seriously, believes that these are reasonable demands - probably not even those students themselves. Yet they are the symptoms of a piece of social engineering dressed up as economic responsibility and market rationalisation.
Sure, there is room for improvement in the university sector. (Where isn't there?) Standards of teaching are probably a bit too variable. One hears about courses where the content hasn't changed in years, where the staff are repeating the same old lectures year after year, where students are treated as an inconvenience rather than a central focus of the university's existence. But to believe, as some right-wing commentators claim to, that this is in any sense the norm or even a significant aspect of university life is to be out of touch with the waves of serious thinking about pedagogy, curriculum, development, differentiation, assessment and feedback that is the norm in universities now, just as much as it is in schools.
Talk of 'producer capture' might have had some pertinence years ago, but now university staff are assessed, mentored, appraised, and questionnaired to within an inch of their professional lives. We have departmental teaching committees, faculty teaching committees, university teaching committees, all of whom take the education of our students very seriously and work very hard to make sure it is as appropriate, thoughtful, engaging, challenging and serious as possible. We have QAA assessments; we have the National Student Survey. We take these things seriously. I know no one in my university who takes their teaching responsibilities lightly. All my colleagues take pride in renewing their courses, challenging themselves and their students, finding new and engaging ways to introduce students to new ideas, practices and debates. The wider culture has not caught up with this: from Fresh Meat to The Hard Problem, students are feckless drunken shaggers and the staff are, well, the same. And, hey, I think Fresh Meat is very funny, but its vision of academics hasn't moved on since The History Man.
Here's the thing: students are not customers. How do we know that students aren't customers? Because you are a customer in Tesco. And when you're in Tesco, when you get to the end of your shopping trip, no one comes along and marks you on the quality of your shop. As an academic, I should be and am more expert than the undergraduates I teach and it is right that I judge how well they are doing. The customer is always right, but students are not. If they were, everyone would graduate with a 1st. The joyful value of a university education is for students to work with academics at the leading edge of their disciplines, actively engaged in thinking through some of the toughest debates, the most intractable problems, the most fascinating corners of the subjects that we all - staff and students alIke - find endlessly curious and are devoting our lives to.
Let me also say that the value of academic education is something that is not revealed immediately. I still draw on things I learned at university (or even at school), insights into how to handle ideas, ways of connecting and resolving problems, asides that some lecturer might have made about a particular topic. I was not, in other words, in a position before or even straight after my degree to judge its value and assign a market price. Universities are one of the good places in our culture; they are one of the great inventions of the last millennium and they work amazingly well through the hard work, devotion, imagination, skill and pride of the people who work in them.
So I think it is good that a future Labour government will reduce the student fees to £6000.
- It sends a signal that the universities and the education of our bright young people is something of value to the whole of society, not simply to those young people themselves.
- Since just under 50% of students look unlikely to pay back their tuition fee loans, the existing system is actually more expensive than the system it replaced. The government is using taxpayers money to fund an costly ideological experiment in turning students inappropriately into consumers.
- Some have pointed out that applications to university have gone up since the higher fees were introduced. This is a dubious argument: (a) application rates have been rising steeply since the late nineties; they were hit heavily in 2012 but despite that bump they have returned to the underlying trend. (b) Does anyone seriously believe that the higher fees have made universities more attractive to students? What evidence is there to believe that lower fees with deter students? And without this argument - and the actual higher cost of the current system - the case for £9k collapses.
- Britain has the second-highest average university tuition fees in the world with only the US higher. And the drift elsewhere in Europe is the other way; a year ago, Germany's university system completed a national abolition of tuition fees. Other countries where there are no European tuition fees include Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway and Sweden. In France, The Netherlands, Spain and fees are somewhere between £150 and £1500. It is possible for a state to pay for its university system; there is nothing inevitable about passing the responsibility of fees from the society as a whole to the individual students.
But I do have two questions for Ed Miliband:
- He has said that the shortfall in university will be made up from the Treasury. He seems very vague about this. There is talk of capping tax-breaks on pension contributions and pension pots. This ring-fencing might seem like a good way of reassuring the public that the policy is fully costed, but what if the policy doesn't produce the income anticipated? (Most Treasury predictions seem to be wildly inaccurate.) If the government reduces the fee income but doesn't replace the missing £3000, universities will get the worst of both worlds. There needs to be a firm commitment to replace that funding.
- Will this be backdated? Say Labour get elected in May 2015. They announce that the lower fees will come in in September 2016. If I were a student, holding an offer for entry in 2015, why would I go? Why not take a gap year, get a job, cool my heels until the lower fees? In other words, universities will take a massive hit in 2015 - much harder that the dip in 2012 (and, god knows, that was terrifying enough). There needs to be an commitment to dropping the fees immediately. And if you're going to do that, which you can, there should, for the sake of justice, be a retrospective reduction of student debt from 2012 to £6k. It would be a terrible thing if the poor students, whose misfortune was to be born between 1994 and 1996, ended up carrying this anomalously high debt. The Government abandoned plans last year to sell the student loan book so you can do this.
It's a good policy. It is the beginning of a rebalancing of our culture's attitude to Higher Education. It's time to end this failed experiment in marketising university education.