Opinion: in favour of the Browne report

Back in 2004, when New Labour reformed higher education funding, most Liberal Democrats opposed the changes. I favoured them. ‘Top-up fees’ were, and still are, a liberal solution to higher education funding. Lord Browne’s recommendations don’t change that. Liberal Democrats should think twice before opposing whatever package of reforms is presented to us in the coming weeks.

The central principle – retrospective fee-payment – is, to my mind, a small work of genius. Liberals are always poised between the principles of freedom (self-ownership and personal rights), and fairness (universal equality of opportunity as a very minimum). Higher education is thus a special problem for us.

We feel that everybody who has the will and ability to go to university should be able to. We know that while they’re there, they ought to be able to study whatever they like.

But just as important is the principle that people should own their choices, and own their educations. How could it be right for someone earning £16,000 a year to help pay for a total stranger’s degree in drama? Why – as in a ‘graduate tax’ solution – should the most successful university graduates retrospectively pay many times their own educational costs so as to fund graduates who did not convert their educations into incomes? Doesn’t this add up to a tax on aspiration, or the incentivisation of bad choices?

Enter retrospective fee payment. Anybody with sufficient ability can attend university. Their fees are covered by a loan – probably the best value loan that they will ever receive in their lives. They pay nothing until they are employed and have a regular income. Thus there are no boundaries against entry to university, and we still each own our unique educations.

Lord Browne’s recommendations would greatly improve this system. Instead of starting to pay back student loans at a wage of £15,000, the benchmark would be raised to £21,000, so that nobody starts paying back before they can afford to.

Right now, the state directly subsidises the cost of all degrees. Why should a degree in media studies, with seven contact hours per week, cost the same as a degree in particle physics, with thirty-five hours of contact each week?

By raising the fees threshold and loosening universities’ ability to value their own courses, the pricing mechanism for higher education is democratised. The ability to define the worth of a given educational path is determined interactively by students and universities.

I would urge Vince Cable to respect a few red lines, however. The student loan system must remain as good a deal as possible in order to incentivise students from all backgrounds. A top-limit cap on fees would not be a bad idea, either.

These issues are now being clouded for Liberal Democrats by a very different point of principle. How can we respect our MPs if they support or abstain from legislation that they promised to oppose?

My own view is that these ‘contracts’ misunderstand the nature of British democracy. Each MP is an individual, empowered by a constituency to make judgement-calls on its behalf. Every few years we get the chance to repeal that empowerment if we don’t like the decisions that have been made. Binding politicians to their election promises rules out the possibility that a better argument, or a new solution, can come along in the mean time. We should afford our MPs the freedom to think flexibly, to listen to all arguments, and even to change their minds.

Now, with a vast funding gap threatening British universities, is the time to establish a system where students have the opportunity to invest in themselves. Owning your own education, and fully owning its rewards, is the liberal antidote to the problem of higher education funding.

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  • Richard Morris 17th Oct '10 - 11:03am

    The issue vexing most Lib Dems are not the merits of the Browne Report, good or bad; it’s that we’ve had the debate already, decided on a view, the MPs – quite literally – signed up to that view, particulalry on tuition fees, – and now want to pretend that they didn’t.

    Tuition fees may be a brilliant solution to the HE funding issue – or they may not. But that argument should have been made and won pre the publishing of the 2010 manifesto. If the leadership wants to reopen the debate, fine – but it will have to be for the next manifesto.

  • Excelent article, says clearly a lot of things I couldnt. While I agree on the principle of the Pledge, it should never have been asked for or made – our MPs are in a really hard place & Im not sure the rest of us yelling at them is any help.

  • “How could it be right for someone earning £16,000 a year to help pay for a total stranger’s degree in drama? “.
    Might as well say why should anyone without children contribute to the education budget. If we believe that education feeds through to improve the economy, the education of the of the young people of today will help pay for our pensions in the future.

  • david lawson 17th Oct '10 - 11:15am

    “the pricing mechanism for higher education is democratised”.

    Eh? This is Doublespeak. What does the article tell us this new rallying call for democrary means:

    “The ability to define the worth of a given educational path is determined interactively by students and universities”

    This is just called the free market. It has a respectable place in any liberal party – it is a consequence of choice and private property. But if you think it is the core value with which this party approaches this question … well you or I misunderstand the members and the philosophy.

    You give it no greater credibility by trying to label free movement of prices as democratic. The market would provide no health, education or housing to many, many people. We know that because, observing the griding poverty of millions, great liberal governments took the state into education, pensions and housing and great liberals drew up a plan to intervene in health. They accepted that this made the prices of those goods “less democratic”.

    I think we may find this change much more fundamental than just a question of fees. It seems from the cuts to university funding that the state is pulling out of higher education. This is a radical privatisation in which the best courses will sell for the highest fees (with the state providing funding for those who need it).

    At £30-50k of debt university education is not a rational choice for anyone expecting a modest income. And in consequence jobs offering a modest income will get only those who have no other choice. Many people will regret having been to university for many years. At least they will know whom to blame.

    And please stop that saying someone on £16k pa should not pay to educate those who earn more. The same argument suggests that all state services should be charged to those who can afford to pay.

  • @roger you assume that any degree in any subject automatically benefits our economy. Any evidence for this?

  • Elizabeth Patterson 17th Oct '10 - 11:35am

    It was foolish of our MPs to fall into the “Pledge” trap. Nearly as bad as the “Vat Bombshell”. Perhaps being in government will teach us a lesson about looking for elephant traps.
    But it is also surprising that a slim majority of the survey sample still want fees paid from general taxation.
    How can they possibly see it as FAIR, for non graduates to help to pay to keep students on 3 year degree course?
    And for those who reject Browne outright, how is it FAIR that part time students at present do not enjoy the option of a student loan.
    As a family in which we have all done our degrees part time and paid up-front, I am sick of seeing media interviews of pampered sixth formers moaning about how they might be put off swanning off to university for three years because they will be eligible to make a pay back when they are earning a good average salary. Poor things!

  • All of your arguments against free universal university education would be equally valid against free primary and secondary education.

    Why should I pay taxes for the education of people who will earn substaintially less than me, or study arts courses?

    The problem with you Mr Kaye, and the other ‘neo-liberals’, is that they see everything in terms of quantative economic utility. That means that society shouldn’t be expected to chip in for things which are qualitatively good for societies… and have been proven to be so on many occasions.

  • The standard ‘why should poor people pay for someone else to do a degree’ is a very silly line. Last time I checked tuition was part funded from general taxation which the richest pay the most into.

  • .
    Squirming sophistry, such as this lead article, is sickening.

    Manifestos subsequently found to be written ambiguously already leave a bitter taste.

    Dropping a flagship policy is something voters will find hard to swallow without regurgatively gagging.

    Break a signed pledge and they simply won’t turn up for dinner.

  • And franky, since the lib dem campaigned on this platform (drawing fees from general taxation), and they were relying people to vote for them ON this platform, talking about what is ‘fair’ in the understanding of most people is somewhat irrelevant, as the Lib Dems would, ideally, be democratically elected with this platform… and therefor the democratic consensus would be that it was ‘fair’. I doubt that most people in this country are actually against drawing university fees from general taxation due to the reasons you have given (although if having to choose between ‘preferred’ schemes, for some it may not be a priority)… what seems to be odd is that there is a right-wing clique that has developed within our own party that is more right-wing and utilitarian that the majority of the population. I hope it gets stamped out at the next election, or they can all join the liberal-Tory party, since they seem to unequivocally support every edict it issues.

  • And the arguments you have used here, as I sort of pointed out above, coul actually be used against any public service. “I don’t use it therefore why should I pay for it?”… say goodbye to subsidies for trains, the NHS and pretty much any and all public spending. I would say that government paying for higher education would have a far greater benefit to our society, both culturally and economically, than most of the public services and spending they feel free to use tax-payers money on. Indeed, the government only pays around £1.8 million to keep fees at the current level, but they could find money for a corporation tax (when corporation tax is already far below the EUropean average) and the military, which doesn’t seem to benefit most of us.

    The reality is that most people here who object to paying for things they don’t use aren’t objecting due to ‘fairness’ but due to to their own ideological bent. There are plenty of things they would like the government to spend money on which most people would prefer it isn’t spent on…. but they mainly suit their own interests.

  • I am afraid that this particular articlet smacks of intellectual masturbation from someone not blooded in political/electoral reality. There is only one argument which would allow us to abandon a PROMISE in our budgetary proposals and that would be that we had costed for that measure to be provided for by something else in our budgetary plan which we are prevented from doing (eg scrapping Trident). Even then, that is a weak argument in respect of something relatively small, in overall budgetary terms, if you have signed up to a PROMISE. You would normally be expected, in such circumstances, to prioritise the promise over other ‘desirable’ things which you had not ‘promised’.

    Hywel Morgan has admirably-demolished the ‘discovery’ argument which Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander. and now, it would seem, even Vince Cable, are pedalling to justify certain proposals.


    This argument, did NOT ‘wash’, for those of us of a more Keynsian bent, when it came to sudden new proposals increasing the rate of deficit repayment ,over-and-above what we had previously announced we had planned to do, and it does not wash here. The only salvation with the overall argument on the deficit reduction rate is that commentators are increasingly-doubting whether the reality of the cuts package will actually match the rhetoric over the full four years.

    Coming back to the pure issue of tuition fees, there was a BBC TV programme this morning, off the back of this ‘U-turn’ proposal, concerning whether politicians can be trusted about anything. Winning intellectual arguments with yourself about the ‘better’ nature of ‘modified Browne’ than the current status quo, in no way undermines the insidious cancerous effect upon the entire political process, particularly with young people, of how the Lib Dem ‘leadership (sic) are now proposing to vote on this matter in the face of ‘promises’ made only months ago. Unfortunately for Lib Dems, the cynicism of a generation or two, as a result of this action, will not be meted out electorally upon all parties in anything like equal measure.

  • And by £1.8 million I meant £1.8 billion, a very small amount is actually saved from making students pay the full cost of their fees, and, essentially little money will be saved immediately because most people won’t pay back their loands for a long time (especially when the loan has to be larger).

  • As Tony Dawson indicates, there is no excuse for the lib dems changing their position.

    The idea is for the party to be democratically elected. Even if certain members of the party disagree with a position, if the party campaigns positions and is voted for because it does so, it must follow through with its promises. Saying ‘we’re in power now so we know better, the Tories were right’, doesn’t wash… we voted for the Liberal democrats because we thought their positions were right and the Tories were wrong. That means that even if a clique of the party think that the Tories are right, they still are obliged to follow through the positions they made a pledge on, they can’t change their … because their voters considered their position right, and the Tory position wrong. (it also seems like the majority of members have this view also).

  • @Simon Kaye

    “Higher education is not like every other public service. It’s hard to make a general welfare argument for some types of degree. ”

    Just like it is hard to make a general welfare argument for some types of primary and secondary education, students taking GCSE’s and A levels in arts subjects etc. And just like it would be hard to make a ‘general welfare argument’ for subsidising train costs.

    There is a great benefit to society from free universal education to the highest level, but since it is not all based around economic utility and is not directly measurable the neo-liberals consider it worthless. People who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  • “I don’t want low earners to subsidise that Art History degree, which is very different from raising an objection to the same low earner contributing to the NHS.”

    But as pointed out, low earners probably won’t be subsidising anything/ very little. You would have to earn about the averae salary to be paying more into the system than you are getting out of it.

    And you seem to forget that the 45% of people attending university will be paying taxes too, probably at a higher rate.

    And you seem to forget that many people do degrees in subjects which you deem economically worthless, because they HAVE to obtain ANY degree to get a good job.

    Degrees are essentially compulsory now in order to get the higher pay grades. So that person doing a history BA will probably benefit the economy, because frankly it doesn’t matter what degree he does anymore… just that he does one. The majority of people (perhaps the’vast’ majority), including most scientists, will rarely use the knowledge they obtain at university, although they might use the research, study and analytical skills they obtain.

    In fact it should be prefferable for the government to support humanities students, because their courses cost far less to teach than those of science students, and most will end up in the same lines of work in any case.

  • What the Browne report and the government fail to take into account is that degrees are essentially becoming compulsory. The problem started under the COnservatives and became much worse under Labour. Yet the government doesn’t want to do anything about this essential FACT, they don’t want to try and change attitudes.

    You can’t have a ‘free market’ in education centred around people ‘choosing’ to go to university and study subjects, when degrees are becoming necessary in order to take the most basic jobs.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Oct '10 - 2:07pm

    Well, most of the stuff in the Browne report is a good idea and should happen. I tend to support it, on the whole.

    Just not the one line about raising tuition fees. The rest seems fine.

  • well I am totally depressed by the whole thing and as an ordinary voter cannot comprehend how the lack of success in the election can lead to an unelected coalition who seem to think that anything goes and anyone is expendible especially women and children. I do not want a reply – I am totally fed up with it all.

  • @Paul Barker
    “our MPs are in a really hard place & Im not sure the rest of us yelling at them is any help.”

    So we should feel sorry for the poor things?! Once a liar always a liar.

  • @ Elizabeth Patterson
    “As a family in which we have all done our degrees part time and paid up-front, I am sick of seeing media interviews of pampered sixth formers moaning about how they might be put off swanning off to university for three years because they will be eligible to make a pay back when they are earning a good average salary. Poor things!”

    You are very lucky to have been able to do this, unfortunately we are not all in that financial position. So, are you saying that only people that can afford fees up front should go to university? My children were never pampered but they would not have gone to university if the fees had been higher.

  • Agree with the main thrust. Think, overall, the policy is better. However, my issue is with the incompetence of the leadership, and perhaps its dishonesty.

  • Hey there, squirming sophist 🙂

    Many thanks fory a thought-provoking article with which I sadly cannot agree. As you already know, I entirely believe that (a) education should be free at the point of delivery for all, because without education EVERYTHING ELSE about so-called modern democratic civilisation falls apart, and (b) unlike practically everything else in politics, promises and pledges should be kept once made (or if there is any doubt, they should just not be made in the first place. Political expediency/populism before an election is NOT a good basis on which to issue such pledges). So: now they’re in, those who led us to their names in the polling booths on the basis of certain promises should be compelled to honour them, somehow or other. Otherwise they must stand accused of fraud.

    If state outlay must needs be drastically slashed due to fiscal difficulties etc, then I recommend the axe fall on defence budget, MPs’ salaries, road-building, anything BUT education.

    Perhaps it’s just as well I’ll never become active in politics outside my local sphere: I bought the LD ticket simply because I bought their attitude toward education and university fees. I feel profoundly disillusioned by the U-turns being made on this front. Perhaps I’m irrational: but – let the leaders note – I suspect I’m typical of most principled if under-instructed voters. Therefrom hang destinies.

  • Hmm. I suspect you’ll accuse me of non sequitur on at least one of the points I’ve made above. Probably correctly. 🙂

  • It’s a coalition – you win some you lose some. We have to accept that. What are the red-liners saying, we should leave the coalition, have an election, and perhaps be out of office for another 3 generations? Not deliver on the 10k tax allowance, not deliver on the pupil premium, etc?

    The Tories got twice as many votes as we did, roughly. We would expect them to win two out of three issues. They have won this one. If we win the next election outright, we can reverse it.

  • “But just as important is the principle that people should own their choices, and own their educations. How could it be right for someone earning £16,000 a year to help pay for a total stranger’s degree in drama?”

    – To me this seems to be a dismally simplistic view, totally ignoring any benefit university education has to the country as a whole. In my own large organisation, there are at least two non-graduate posts for every graduate employed: without the grads bringing in the work, these wouldn’t exist. And you can turn the argument around: a successful plumber earns significantly more than most grads I know – the boilers they fit are designed by graduate engineers and industrial designers, so how it be fair that the plumber doesn’t contribute to uni education?!

    Also, it’s perhaps interesting that you used the example of ‘drama’. Did you find that ‘medicine’, ‘civil engineering’ or the like didn’t make the argument quite as convincingly?! For the record, I’ve a degree in physics and a higher degree in engineering – presumably the sort of person who stereotypically looks down on ‘drama’ – but feel HE is best funded through general taxation, be it for drama – don’t forget the income the UK artistic sector generates – or particle physics…

    “Why – as in a ‘graduate tax’ solution – should the most successful university graduates retrospectively pay many times their own educational costs so as to fund graduates who did not convert their educations into incomes? Doesn’t this add up to a tax on aspiration, or the incentivisation of bad choices?”

    – Again, narrow: “most successful” = “high earning”. What about the poorly-paid grad working in the Govt lab who did not “convert their educations into incomes” but did discover the cure for cancer? I guess this would be a ‘bad choice’ – silly research scientist, you should be working in the city.

    “Enter retrospective fee payment. Anybody with sufficient ability can attend university. Their fees are covered by a loan – probably the best value loan that they will ever receive in their lives. They pay nothing until they are employed and have a regular income. Thus there are no boundaries against entry to university, and we still each own our unique educations. ”

    – Oh dear. As for there being “no boundaries”, I’ve seen this sort of argument elsewhere on this website, but it ignores the factor that for poor/working class/whatever, just the thought of such debt may be terrifying. It doesn’t matter what the repayment mechanism is, I think many will just feel that HE is ‘not for them’. I know I would have thought twice.

  • simonkaye stated: ‘For the record, I think I’m at least moderately “blooded” in electoral reality, having worked as a constituency organiser over the period of an election.’

    Well Simon I have lost track of the number of elections I have been involved in but we’ve all got to start somewhere.

    So let me wish you luck at the next election you are involved in when people question the breaking of LibDem promises and party policies or manifesto commitments. I am sure the experience will go a long way to filling the obvious gaps in your political experience.

  • Alex Sabine 18th Oct '10 - 2:35am

    I support the “broad thrust” in the Browne report, as the current phrase goes. In fact there is very little in it I disagree with.

    Its proposals are based on six key principles: more money should flow into higher education; the role of student choice should increase; everyone with the potential to enter HE should be able to do so; nobody should be forced to pay before they earn a decent salary; repayments should be affordable; and part-time students should be treated like full-time ones.

    As Martin Wolf of the FT says, “I cannot see how a reasonable person could object to any of these aims”, which the report takes great care to give effect to. He goes on to observe: “It is astonishing that [government picking up the whole tab] is supported on the left, since it requires using scarce public funds to private huge private benefits to those who will be the most highly rewarded in the country: on average, the net private benefit from higher education is over $200,000 per graduate.”

    Many commenters here have claimed that the same argument could be made about all other public spending. But this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    While I would be the first to recognise that higher education is beneficial for the economy and – just as importantly – for a civilised society, it’s clear that it also confers significant personal financial benefits on the minortity of the population that takes part in it compared to the majority that does not. Not in every case, but on average – and under the Browne proposals, those who don’t get the earnings premium they were hoping for will not have to repay their fees.

    This argument then gets muddled up with the claim that “graduates already pay for the cost of their degree through paying higher taxes”. This is a good argument against a ‘pure’ (ie uncapped) graduate tax – which seeks to charge high-earning graduates many times the cost of their degree, even though they already pay more through higher income tax.

    I agree that it does not make sense to subject high-earning graduates to a special, steeper tax scale than other high earners who did not attend university. Wolf again makes the point well: “The idea that people should pay an extra tax, for life, merely because they went to university is bizarre. Fee repayment is a far more logical idea.”

    Instead the proposal is simply that better-off graduates should repay the full cost of their own degree course, plus the interest on their loans, whereas if they don’t earn as much over their lifetime they might only repay half the cost before the debt is written off. (In fact, under Browne’s proposals, roughly the top 40% of earners would pay back all the money that the government had forked out on their behalf, while the lowest earners would pay less than under the present system.)

    While you could argue that high earners already pay for their university education through progressive taxation, this is only true in the general sense that they pay a lot of tax into the pot. If university tuition is paid for wholly or mainly through general taxation, the cost is spread among all taxpayers, including the low-paid among them. As Martin Wolf says, it is a poor use of scarce public funds from an equity standpoint. (And given the cuts to HE funding that Labour had already begun and were inevitably going to be the outcome of the Spending Review, this argument would become more sharply defined, since tax would need to be increased for this specific purpose, quite apart from deficit reduction or other spending commitments like the pupil premium.)

    ExLD says: …for poor/working class/whatever, just the thought of such debt may be terrifying. It doesn’t matter what the repayment mechanism is, I think many will just feel that HE is ‘not for them’.

    I can see that this is a concern in theory – but it does not seem to be borne out by the evidence of what has happened since the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 (even when it was an inferior system of up-front fees) and then top-up fees in 2006. There has been a surge in demand which the universities have been unable to meet, and the participation rate has risen from 39% of the population in 1997 to about 45% today.

    The survey evidence presented in the Browne report also specifically refutes the claim that higher fees deterred poorer students. Citing government research, it says in paragraph 2.2 that “there is no evidence from the national trends that changes to tuition fees or student support have been coincident with reductions in the young participation rate”.

    Instead, over the past five years, “there has been a significant and sustained increase in the participation rate of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas”.

    In Scotland, where there are no fees, working-class participation rates appear to have actually declined compared with England’s.

    Further evidence from the IFS suggests that the chief deterrent to going to university is not the fee but in whether it is payable up-front or deferred, and even in the former case the deterrent was more than counterbalanced by a loan, despite the incurring of debt. Browne proposes no up-front fee, not even for part-time students as is currently the case – while his loan repayment scheme is highly progressive as explained above.

    Civilised countries throughout the world charge fees for higher education while promoting the widest possible access. Have you checked out the HE participation rates in Australia, New Zealand or the US recently?

    Moreover, the Browne report makes several specific proposals to make the system as attractive as possible for poorer students (or those who don’t expect to go into a well-paid job) – including the increase in the repayment threshold from £15K to £21K and higher grants for students from deprived backgrounds.

    These reforms are also likely to make university courses more responsive to students in respect of everything from cost to course content to quality of teaching to the number of contact hours, rather than accountable upwards to government. They will give universities a much larger independent source of income, making them less reliant on the vagaries of government budgets and more reliant on their success in attracting applicants. They will create a more progressive system of financing than currently exists.

    The one concern that I think is valid is that the government might take an overly utilitarian view of where the residual public funding through the teaching grant should be directed. I would want to see some continued public funding of the humanities subjects alongside medicine and the sciences, if necessary at the expense of some of the less valuable research output. The question of how the much reduced public subsidy will be apportioned needs a better rationale than has been advanced so far.

    But, overall, the Browne proposals are to be welcomed. (The issue of reneging on the NUS pledge is an important, but separate, issue that shouldn’t cloud our judgment of what the right policy is.)

    I agree with the conclusion of the Independent that: “Higher education is a public good that also, mostly, confers considerable private benefits. The state’s responsibility lies in providing loans to cover up-front funding and guaranteeing access to all those with the talent to benefit. The most important principle here is that no one should be deterred from higher education by the cost of a degree. That is the issue of fairness that ministers must focus on relentlessly as they push through this difficult, but necessary, reform of higher education funding.”

  • Thanks for your comments; some thoughts below:


    “I think that perhaps people ought to think twice, don’t you? It’s a big decision. The costs aren’t actually changing, just their source. Should we have a generation of students who are cheerfully profligate with the public purse?”

    – No. Sorry, I wasn’t very clear. I didn’t mean ‘think twice’ literally, but simply as shorthand for thinking that, despite ability, A-level results and ambition, the cost factor would be a block.

    Regarding the ‘source’ of costs, the Lib Dem proposals appear to amount to (a) at least a doubling of fees and (b) cutting the teaching budget by 80%, implying the effective privatisation of HE (well, HE teaching). This, in turn, implies there’s no societal benefit from HE, just a graduate-uni, buyer-seller transaction. This feels distinctly different from both the graduate and the state making a contribution. I wonder how many Lib Dem supporters voted for this…?


    “ExLD says: …for poor/working class/whatever, just the thought of such debt may be terrifying. It doesn’t matter what the repayment mechanism is, I think many will just feel that HE is ‘not for them’.

    I can see that this is a concern in theory – but it does not seem to be borne out by the evidence of what has happened since the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 (even when it was an inferior system of up-front fees) and then top-up fees in 2006. There has been a surge in demand which the universities have been unable to meet, and the participation rate has risen from 39% of the population in 1997 to about 45% today.

    The survey evidence presented in the Browne report also specifically refutes the claim that higher fees deterred poorer students. Citing government research, it says in paragraph 2.2 that “there is no evidence from the national trends that changes to tuition fees or student support have been coincident with reductions in the young participation rate”.

    Instead, over the past five years, “there has been a significant and sustained increase in the participation rate of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas”.

    In Scotland, where there are no fees, working-class participation rates appear to have actually declined compared with England’s.”

    – I understand your point but it is inevitably based on historical data, i.e. because particpation increased while fees have increased from zero to £3K-ish, does this mean that further increases from £3K to £7-12K will also have the same effect?! Following this argument, fees should be set as high as possible! I also take the point re front- vs rear-loading of fees, but my gut feeling is that the debt may become simply too scary for some, regardless of the payment options…

  • The argument that caught my eye at the beginning of this discussion was the equating of the general taxation for such things as the NHS and schools with the idea of general taxation for HE. The problem is the NHS and schools are universal benefits – rich or poor we all have access to them whether we choose to use them or not. But there were at least 20,000 students who applied last year who were told there was no place for them and there were clearly many more thousands who would never apply because they aren’t of HE standard – and yet we are still asking those 20,000 and the many hundreds of thousands more without the necessary academic ability to pay through their taxes – they literally can’t get access to this service but are expected to pay for it – this seems unfair.

    The NHS argument points out another significant difference between a service like the NHS and HE. Within HE your ‘treatment’ is directly dependant on your academic ability, so if you manage to break through into this new world of opportunity you will find that your media studies treatment at Huddersfield does not have the long term outcomes that another patients law treatment at Cambridge does. If the NHS was run on this basis your fitness would determine the quality of treatment offered.

    I’m not suggesting that the way HE is delivered is wrong, just that you can’t equate the two services and simply say they both provide a universal benefit so should be funded universally. While this is undoubtedly true the nature of the services themselves and their delivery is so different that it seems sensible that they could possibly be funded differently.

  • Browne’s Gamble
    Stefan Collini
    Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance by Lord Browne et al
    62 pp, October 2010
    Much of the initial response to the Browne Report seems to have missed the point. Its proposals have been discussed almost entirely in terms of ‘a rise in fees’. Analysis has largely concentrated on the amount graduates might pay and on which social groups may gain or lose by comparison with the present system. In other words, the discussion has focused narrowly on the potential financial implications for the individual student, and here it should be recognised that some of the details of Browne’s proposed system of graduate contributions to the cost of fees are, if his premises are granted, an improvement on the present patchwork arrangements.

    But the report proposes a far, far more fundamental change to the way universities are financed than is suggested by this concentration on income thresholds and repayment rates. Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). The single most radical recommendation in the report, by quite a long way, is the almost complete withdrawal of the present annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching, currently around £3.9 billion. This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.

    Instead, Browne wants to see universities attracting customers in a competitive marketplace: there will be a certain amount of public subsidy of these consumers’ purchasing power, especially for those who do not go on to a reasonably well-paid job, but the mechanism which would henceforth largely determine what and how universities teach, and indeed in some cases whether they exist at all, will be consumer choice. There are, naturally, some well-meant nods towards ‘quality assurance’ and ‘safeguarding the public interest’, and the report has a few good ideas for mitigating some of the harshest financial effects of its scheme on individual students from less advantaged backgrounds. But what is of greatest significance here is not the detail of the financial arrangements but the character of the reasoning by which they are justified. Britain’s universities, it is proposed, should henceforth operate in accordance with the tenets of perfect competition theory.

    Nobody should pretend that all is well with British universities in their present condition. For one thing, expansion of numbers on the cheap has dramatically diluted the level of attention to individual students that most universities can provide: nearly all parents with children at university hear disturbing reports of overcrowded ‘seminars’ and minimal contact hours or attention to written work. In addition, there can be no doubt that the Research Assessment Exercises have, in addition to their other obvious failings, fostered a culture within universities that rewards research disproportionately more than it does teaching. The devoted university teachers of a generation or more ago who were widely read and kept up with recent scholarship, but who were not themselves prolific publishers, have in many cases been hounded into early retirement, to be replaced (if replaced at all) by younger colleagues who see research publications as the route to promotion and esteem, and who try to limit their commitment to undergraduate teaching as far as they can.

    And then there are the problems that result from trying to pretend that we have a uniform ‘university system’, when in fact there is a great diversity of types of institution and levels of quality. In the past two or three decades there has been a huge educational enfranchisement of sections of the population that had hitherto been shut out from the benefits of post-school education, and that has been a great democratic good which present financial or other difficulties should not lead us to discount. But this does not mean that all these people are, or should be, going straight from school to study traditional, intensively taught undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences as full-time students at residential universities. There is a wholly legitimate place in a diversified higher education system for all kinds of part-time, work-related, vocationally oriented, career-break courses, but the social value of the institutions that primarily provide such courses should be recognised and properly rewarded without forcing them to try to ape ‘traditional’ universities when the odds – in terms of resources, reputation and so on – are so stacked against them.

    To understand the real significance of Browne’s proposals, we need briefly to recall the evolution of the present system over the past half-century. In the 1960s and 1970s, the bulk of British universities’ income came in the form of a block grant from government, administered to them on the ‘arm’s length’ principle by a body, largely made up of senior academics, called the University Grants Committee. In the 1980s, this system underwent substantial modification, with, for example, the ‘research’ element being distributed differentially in accordance with the results of successive Research Assessment Exercises, while the element covering teaching was paid on a roughly per capita basis, with higher multiples for expensive subjects such as medicine. In the late 1980s, the UGC was replaced by what has become the Higher Education Funding Council, whose membership includes business people and administrators and whose role has been to give more direct effect to successive government policies by tying funding to the implementation of so-called reforms. In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, Conservative governments deliberately reduced the level of funding while increasing student numbers: in the years between 1989 and 1997 alone, as the Browne Report itself acknowledges, ‘universities experienced a drop in funding per student of 36 per cent.’ The decision in 1992 to allow all polytechnics to become universities almost doubled the number of universities – and therefore of university students – overnight, all now to be funded under the single system. Between 1981 and 1997 considerable damage was done to universities, not least to the quality of their teaching, by this deliberate combination of headlong expansion and progressive lowering of funding levels.

    In the mid-1990s a committee was established, chaired by Lord Dearing, an experienced education policy-fixer, to come up with ways of halting this downward spiral. Its 1997 report was taken to signal the end of ‘universal free higher education tuition’, since it recommended that graduates make a direct financial contribution to the costs of their courses. Dearing suggested that this should be done through a system of deferred repayments of an initial loan, calibrated according to income after university. But David Blunkett, the relevant minister at the time, decided that it should be imposed as an upfront charge, initially of £1000 per year. He also, in an equally ill-considered move, reduced maintenance grants. Most students felt worse off; most universities felt very little better off. It was clear from the outset that ‘Blunkett’s botch’ could only be, at best, a temporary repair.

    The Higher Education Act of 2004, the occasion of bitter political conflict and the narrowest of victories in Parliament by the government, replaced this fudge with a system of variable fees whose level was to be set by individual universities, up to a maximum of £3000, indexed to inflation. The act also scrapped upfront payment, and instituted the present system of deferred repayment (not starting till the graduate’s income exceeds £15,000), together with a confusing mixture of bursaries, grants and other loans. The stated aim of allowing universities to set their own fees was to encourage institutions to ‘compete on price’. As it turned out, only one institution charged below the maximum: it thereby missed out on quite a bit of money, and soon all universities charged the same maximum fee. This has brought universities some welcome extra income and allowed them to begin to address some of the problems caused by long-term underfunding, but it is still the case that the costs of teaching are principally met from the block grant.

    When considering Browne’s proposals, it is important to realise four things about the present system. First, the existence of the block grant allows universities both a degree of flexibility about its use (for example, in cross-subsidising less popular subjects) and a degree of stability in their forward planning (at least between successive funding settlements). Second, it is still up to individual universities to make decisions about the range of subjects they offer, the best forms of teaching them and so on; the government does not prescribe these, and applicants simply choose from among those the universities provide. Third, the government has a direct financial interest in regulating total student numbers since its expenditure is per capita, both in terms of the block grant and the underwriting of the costs of the loan and bursary systems. And fourth, fees are not determined by the actual cost of the student’s education, since these vary between courses and between universities; the current fee is better understood as a kind of graduate poll tax, softened by a mildly progressive deferred payment arrangement. What we have at present, therefore, represents an intricate kind of compact between the state, the universities, the students and the taxpayer.

    Browne proposes to scrap most of this. In its place, he wants to see a system in which the universities are providers of services, students are the (rational) consumers of those services, and the state plays the role of the regulator. His premise is that ‘students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.’ His frequently repeated mantra is ‘student choice will drive up quality,’ and the measure of quality is ‘student satisfaction’. At the moment, he laments, ‘students do not have the opportunity to choose between institutions on the basis of price and value for money.’ Under his scheme, such value will be primarily judged by students in terms of ‘the employment returns from their courses’. Courses that lead to higher earnings will be able to charge higher fees. The same assumption governs repayment rates: ‘Graduates will be required to make a greater contribution to the costs of higher education varying widely according to how much benefit they have received from studying,’ where the amount of benefit is indicated by the size of their subsequent salary. Overall, ‘increasing competition for students will mean that institutions will have stronger incentives to focus on improving teaching quality. If they are not able to attract enough students, their funding will decrease,’ and they will eventually be eliminated. Perfect competition theory rules.

    Naturally, the report presents all this as being for the greater good of universities: ‘We have made the case that investment in higher education should increase; the decision on whether this case is convincing will rest with students.’ This is culpably misleading. The report proposes a huge, almost unimaginable, de facto cut in investment in higher education. It then says that it hopes to see this enormous shortfall made good by the fees students will be willing to pay to those institutions that convince them they are worth it (principally by enabling them to earn a higher salary). It is in reality a disguised voucher scheme. Students will be able to borrow the cost of the fees, on somewhat subsidised terms, and they are then expected to go and spend them on the ‘service provider’ of their choice. The report proposes that what universities teach will henceforth be determined by their anticipation of consumer demand.

    And even in its own wildly optimistic terms, this report proposes a hefty cut in funding. In suggesting that the standard fee should initially be set at £6000 (which particular institutions might choose to exceed, though there will be various disincentives, including a ‘levy’ which would claw some of it back), Browne acknowledges that this would not fully replace the value of the block grant even for the most successful institutions. But this is shrugged off with that kind of je m’en foutisme about real consequences that it is so much easier to cultivate in the boardroom than on the shopfloor: ‘The purpose of starting the levy at a lower point is to instil a focus on efficiency throughout the system.’ Lots of courses may have to be closed and lots of people sacked, but that must mean, by definition, that they weren’t offering a product the consumer wanted, so good riddance.

    Much discussion has been focused on the fact that the stronger universities would be likely to charge fees well above the standard level, and that this would introduce a ‘two-tier’ (or, in reality, a multi-tier) system. But the fact is that we have a multi-tier system already, with both the better qualified applicants and the bulk of research funding being attracted to the universities that (are thought to) have the best reputations. The most likely effect of Browne’s proposals here would be to exacerbate the financial disparity between types of university and, above all, to bring about a much closer correlation between the reputational hierarchy of institutions and the social class of their student body. The report includes various ‘access’ regulations intended to mitigate the more extreme effects of this reallocation of students by family wealth, but differential fees are, of course, absolutely central to its conception of the way the market mechanism will operate, and it is a necessary truth about markets that they tend to replicate and even intensify the existing distribution of economic power. ‘Free competition’ between rich and poor consumers means Harrods for the former and Aldi for the latter: that’s what the punters have ‘chosen’.

    The character, but perhaps also the confusions, of this model come more clearly into focus if we return to the statement I quoted earlier which says: ‘Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.’ Looked at more closely, this statement reveals itself to be a vacuous tautology because of its reliance on the phrase ‘want to get’. By definition, individuals are privileged reporters on what they think they want. The sentence could only do the work the report requires of it if it said something more like: ‘Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they should get from participating in higher education.’ But this proposition is obviously false. Children may be best placed to judge what they want to get from the sweetshop, but they are not best placed to judge what they should get from their schooling. University students are, of course, no longer children, but nor are they simply rational consumers in a perfect market.

    It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment. The sentence that immediately follows the vacuous one about students’ ‘wants’ reads: ‘We have looked carefully at the scope to distribute funding by some objective metric of quality; but there is no robust way to do this and we doubt whether the choices of a central funding body should be put before those of students.’ It is, first of all, striking that the only alternative envisaged to the random play of subjective consumer choice is an ‘objective metric of quality’, i.e. some purely quantitative indicator. And second, it is no less striking that instead of allowing that an informed judgment might be based on reasons, arguments and evidence, there are simply the ‘choices’ made by two groups, treated as though they are just two equivalent expressions of subjective preference. We can have the money for a national system of higher education distributed either in accordance with the tastes of 18-year-olds or in accordance with the tastes of a group of older people in London: there’s no other way to do it.

    Similarly, Browne appears to believe that the only relevant measure of teaching quality is ‘student satisfaction’. That is how the system will work: if they are satisfied, they’ll pay, and if not, not; and the pressure they exert thereby will ‘drive up quality’. But this, other problems aside, comes perilously close to reducing important human experiences to a set of ‘preferences’ as reported on a tick-box questionnaire. I would hope the students I teach come away with certain kinds of dissatisfaction (including with themselves: a ‘satisfied’ student is nigh-on ineducable), and it matters more that they carry on wondering about the source of that dissatisfaction than whether they ‘liked’ the course or not. This is another respect in which the ‘consumer’ model is simply misleading, an error encouraged by the prevalence in current edspeak of the category of ‘the student experience’ (many universities now have a senior figure entitled Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Student Experience). It may be that the most appropriate way to decide whether the atmosphere in the student bar is right is by what students say when asked in a questionnaire whether they ‘like’ it or not. But this is obviously not the best way to decide whether a philosophy degree should have a compulsory course on Kant. The philosophy department might hope that, some time after graduation, most of its former students would come to see the wisdom of this requirement, but ‘student satisfaction’ is not what is at issue here. That this recognition is retrospective tells us something important about education: individuals often need to be told by someone who knows that a particular line of study is worth pursuing whether at the time they want to or not.

    The Browne Report, in keeping with the ethos of market populism, shies away from anything that might seem to involve a judgment that one activity is more worthwhile than another: all you can go by are consumer preferences, what people say they think they want. But at certain moments the report is forced to fall back on other criteria which then reveal the hollowness of the central premise. For example, when the report suggests that there would be some residual functions for a rejigged Higher Education Council, to do with regulation and ‘access’, it also allows that there might be a ‘public interest’ in making sure there were enough courses in, say, medicine, and then goes on: ‘The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead.’ Or again, when proposing a limited amount of ‘targeted investment by the public in certain courses’ (essentially in science and technology), it concedes that this would be necessary since ‘students may not choose these courses because the private returns are not as high as other courses, the costs are higher and there are cheaper courses on offer, or simply because these courses are perceived as more difficult.’ Wait a minute! Browne’s guiding assumption – the nag on which the nation’s higher education inheritance is to be gambled – is that the system will be governed by student choice. If they can see that it is worth their while to study, say, medicine, even if its costs are higher, they will choose to do so and courses in medicine will therefore be provided; and if the students think these courses do not represent ‘value for money’, they will shun them, in which case either the cost of such courses will fall or they will simply die out. But now Browne is admitting market failure: applicants might make ‘irrational’ decisions. And what’s more, where are these judgments about what is ‘needed’ coming from? We’ve just been told that the ‘choices’ of central bodies should give way before the ‘choices’ of students, but now that only seems to be true in some cases.

    It is, incidentally, one of the several dispiriting features of this report that even when it shows an inconsistent twitch of non-market reflexes and recognises that there may be a public interest in making sure that certain subjects are offered and studied, it in effect confines these subjects to science and technology (with a token nod to the possible economic usefulness of some foreign languages). The only social value the report seems able to think of is economic: these subjects contribute directly to the economy, it is alleged, and so we must have them. The Comprehensive Spending Review has reinforced this emphasis on science and technology by maintaining the science budget (which supports research, not teaching) at its present level. Browne implies that other subjects, especially the arts and humanities, are just optional extras. If students are willing to cash in their voucher to study them – perhaps because, for some unexamined reason, they are thought to lead to higher-paid jobs – so be it; but if they’re not, then there’s no public interest in having them. Despite the occasional (very occasional) mention of, say, ‘culture’, the logic of the report’s proposals gives such values no independent standing. Overwhelmingly, the general statements announce, with startling confidence, the real point of higher education: ‘Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation. Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’ And just when you might think there was going to be a glimpse of something broader, your knuckles are smartly rapped: ‘Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next.’ This report displays no real interest in universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries.

    But although this is what higher education is said to be for, Browne complains that it does not at present fulfil its function very well; it does not ‘meet business needs’. For example: ‘The CBI found that 48 per cent of employers were dissatisfied with the business awareness of the graduates they hired.’ Oh dear! Can it be that some universities may not have a compulsory ‘business awareness day’ each week? Don’t worry, Browne will fix that. Only courses that lead to high-paid jobs will survive, so universities will make sure they provide the graduates that high-paying employers want. And anyway, many students will have developed more business awareness through the experience of seeing how failing businesses are driven to respond to falling market share.

    The truth is, of course, that universities are not businesses and they do not operate in a market (which is not to say that they do not need to be financially well run and to make good use of their, at present largely public, resources). All comparisons and analogies are potentially misleading, but it would be less inaccurate to say that, historically, British universities have been national cultural institutions that more closely resembled, say, the British Museum or the BBC rather than, say, Bhs or BP. This does, of course, leave them vulnerable to the winds of political fashion, not just in terms of fluctuations in funding but also in such matters as the recent mania for constant assessment. As a result, some people see the idea of the better regarded and better off British universities ‘going private’ as appealing, a form of liberation from the heavy hand of the state, and some, overtly or secretly, hope that the adoption of Browne’s proposals will hasten this outcome. But while it may be true that the present system embodies an unnecessary pretence that all institutions called universities perform the same set of functions, it is no good deluding ourselves that simply leaving 18-year-old applicants to cash in their vouchers at a university of their choice will lead to a more intelligently conceived provision of diverse, high-quality institutions. It may just lead to a few private jets and a lot of Ryanairs.

    The scale of the report’s dismantling of the public character of higher education is breathtaking, and yet, from another point of view, scarcely surprising. Though described as ‘an independent review’, it was never likely to issue in a set of recommendations so out of tune with current government thinking that they would simply be ignored. The coalition is at the moment using the whipped-up frenzy about the deficit in the public finances as a cover for a recognisably ideological assault on all forms of public provision. There was little chance that this report would make proposals that were not congruent with the form given to this assault by the Comprehensive Spending Review. It has, as expected, proposed a huge reduction, amounting to de facto abolition, of the block grant for teaching (full details are awaited). Some representatives of British universities, appalled and terrified by the consequences of the massive cuts proposed in the spending review, appear to be pinning their hopes on Browne as the only way of getting any money into higher education. These are certainly desperate times, but perhaps the case for the proper public funding of universities should not be surrendered quite so readily. What has to be recognised is that the Browne Report is not some alternative, still less antidote, to the spending review: they go together as the two faces of a calculated attempt to reshape higher education in this country by subjecting it to ‘the discipline of the market’.

    Browne presents his proposals as a package, with a single sustaining logic, and it is noticeable that in interviews he has been insistent that no one should try to unpick the package. But Vince Cable, David Willetts and their colleagues may be well advised to adopt his proposals on a strictly selective basis. Fees will clearly rise, in which case features of the report’s scheme for repayment are preferable to the present system: better-paid graduates would pay proportionately more, lower-paid graduates proportionately less. For maintenance costs, its combination of a uniform loan and a more generous means-tested grant would also benefit the students who need it most. The report is clearly right that part-time students must be eligible for funding for their tuition on the same basis, pro rata, as full-time students; the lack of such provision was a major flaw of the 2004 legislation. In these respects, several of the details of Browne’s scheme are quite progressive.

    But these are, precisely, details. It is difficult to estimate – though some reports suggest it may be difficult to exaggerate – the damage that may be done to British universities in the short term by the abolition of the block grant and the wild hope that its functions will be taken over by some kind of market mechanism run by university applicants. At present, the block grant is the tangible expression of the public interest in the provision of good quality education across the system, and the means for universities to make informed intellectual choices about the subjects they teach. But before Liberal Democrat MPs sell their souls in the division lobbies, they need to consider the longer-term consequences for British education and culture more generally of implementing the kind of reasoning on which this report is based. What is at stake here is not primarily the question of whether this or that group of graduates will pay a little more or a little less towards the costs of their education, even though that may seem (particularly to those in marginal seats) to be the most potent element electorally. What is at stake is whether universities in the future are to be thought of as having a public cultural role partly sustained by public support, or whether we move further towards redefining them in terms of a purely economistic calculation of value and a wholly individualist conception of ‘consumer satisfaction’.

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