Yesterday, Lord Browne published his review into higher education funding and student finance. I guess it made pretty grim reading for those hoping to go to university in the future and parents of young children like me, but given the financial mess we’ve inherited there’s not much alternative. We can’t significantly cut funding for our universities – they are absolute vital to the future prospects of UK plc – and the Government can’t afford to keep funding them at the current level so students are going to have to pay more.
The key tests are whether pupils from less well-off backgrounds would be put off from going to university and whether in return for paying more students would get a better experience than they currently do.
On the first test, Lord Browne argues that upfront tuition fees certainly deter people from less well-off backgrounds and recommends putting right the current unfairness where full-time students pay back their tuition fees once they are earning more than £15,000 but part-time students have to pay upfront. He also recommends raising the amount people have to earn before they start paying back to £21,000 but charging a real rate of interest of 2 per cent once they cross that threshold. The Government needs to look at other measures alongside these to ensure that bright students from all backgrounds continue to go to our best universities.
On the second test, the reforms should encourage new institutions to enter the market. Rather than offering their own degrees, they might teach you to sit for a degree from a more well known university (Croydon College, for example, already offers some degrees from the University of Sussex), allowing you to get the degree you want while saving money by studying from home. They might have longer terms so that you can complete a degree in two years, not three, and therefore graduate with less debt. And if we do get new institutions, it should make existing universities raise their game in terms of what they offer students. If we are going to ask young people to pay more on the grounds that they will earn more later in life, then they are entitled to expect more in return.