Will the plans in the Browne report mean better-funded universities, or will they just exclude poorer students? Yes, no and maybe—three different experts' viewsby Diane Coyle / October 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
“It will be a disaster”
Professor of astrophysics, Cardiff University
For the last two decades I have been part of the consensus that students should pay a significant contribution towards their education. I did a degree in Cambridge in the late 1970s and didn’t have to pay a penny. It was manifestly unfair that the taxes of the vast majority who did not go to university should have paid for my education, whose main beneficiary has been me. Based on this “fairness criterion,” I supported the last government’s decision to raise tuition fees to £3,000 pounds per year. However, with Browne’s proposal to raise tuition fees to at least £7,000 per year, and possibly to set no limit at all, the “fairness criterion” is now pointing firmly in the other direction.
The standard argument for fees is that, over a lifetime, a university degree is worth the initial investment. With the new tuition fees, the cost of a three-year degree will be about £36,000, and the cost of a four-year science degree (now the de facto degree for anyone interested in a career in science) will be about £48,000 pounds—not much less than the cost of the first house I bought in the 1990s. But the figure given for the lifetime economic benefit of a degree is about £100,000, which makes a degree still look a reasonable investment.
However, it is impossible to accurately project what they will earn in the future—especially given the increasing number of people going to university. Many people, of course, will not benefit at all, since the flood of graduates has meant that many jobs that in the past which didn’t require a degree now require one. And this is the same generation that will be faced with further intergenerational unfairness, like the pensions black hole and the difficulty of buying a house.
The Browne proposals will also add to the unfairness that the top universities are already dominated by the children of parents rich enough to pay for private schools. This will now get much worse. There will be bursaries to help children from the poorest backgrounds, but the people that will really be hit will be the vast bulk of the middle class who are not part of the metropolitan elite, and do not earn enough to send their kids to private school or to help much with the new tuition fees. It is hard to see how Oxbridge will avoid becoming the higher-education equivalent of Eton, with just enough people supported by bursaries to give the impression that these universities are still public institutions.