The charge: that the Browne Report compromises a crucial principle of free education and threatens equality of opportunity.
It can’t really be disputed that our university funding is in urgent need of reform, especially given the significance of opportunity and training in the current economic environment, and indeed it isn’t really disputed by anyone serious. That’s why Labour commissioned the report from Lord Browne in the first place, and why all the major political parties had to to take a position on higher education funding during the election – with the Liberal Democrats famously promising to oppose any rise in tuition fees. Their democratic accountability to their own voters, incidentally, is an entirely separate issue from the rights and wrongs of Lord Browne’s proposals.
Labour’s original introduction of tuition fees to let the costs fall on those who’ve actually benefited from a university education was, although controversial, not a morally repugnant idea. University education is not the only way to secure a well-paid job, and, depending on the course, isn’t even a particularly significant factor in future earnings. A study undertaken by the Higher Education Statistics Agency just before the recession showed the average graduate salary to be only £18k per annum, and that 7% of graduates are unemployed. Dr Nigel O’Leary (senior economics lecturer at the University of Wales) pointed out as early as 2005 a “growing number of graduates were chasing a fixed number of jobs” – a situation leaving more and more graduates very obviously destined for disappointment.
The coalition’s Graduate Tax has since helped balance out the corresponding debt burden that the lowest earning graduates are saddled with, but it still doesn’t address the fundamental problem that having a degree isn’t much good if there aren’t enough high-paying, skilled jobs at the end of it.
So, given that there are going to be increasingly fewer jobs as the government’s cuts plow on, would Lord Browne’s proposals be a disaster if implemented, or do they actually have some practical merit?
Well, best things first: Lord Browne has proposed that graduates don’t pay back a penny of their loans until they are earning at least £21,000 a year. Potential students from low income backgrounds – not to mention low-paid or recently made redundant mature students – seeking to boost skills without any guarantee of a corresponding wage hike don’t need to be so cautious about taking the plunge as they might have been when they’d start paying back the debt on a salary of only £15,000. To the same end, Browne has also proposed a simple, comprehensive grant system for the poorest students, which has been praised even by the New Statesman for its progressiveness.
So why the controversy?
The main point of disquiet in the Browne Report is the proposal to free up the universities, and allow them to charge whatever they like for their courses. This policy would, naturally, cause tuition fees to shoot skyward, potentially hitting around £12,000 for the most popular institutions. Critics argue that this will discourage poorer students from applying to Oxbridge or the LSE, causing (well, increasing, really) a cap in educational opportunities between rich and poor.
A fair concern, except the very poorest students won’t be facing these fees, because of the new, simplified grant proposals (in place of means-tested loans), and even those on the cusp of being able to pay their own fees will not have to pay back the money until – or rather, unless – they earn enough after they graduate.
Some critics complain that the raising of fees is wrong because of a fundamental principle that educational institutions shouldn’t make a profit out of their services. Such critics will be comforted to know that Browne also advocates imposing a levy on any universities charging over a fixed amount, which means in practice that any university charging the estimated £12,000 would be paying a 27% tax back to the government. The rest of the money would of course go to towards maintaining themselves, which is unlikely to constitute raking in any great profit at a time when higher education is tipped to be soon facing cuts to the tune of 70-80%.
But there is also a broader principle here. Not only is a university education not right for everybody (or even necessarily right for the 40% that Labour asserted it would be), not everybody wants a university education. Because not everyone wants a graduate job. Lots of people would rather (often earning considerably more than than the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s average of £17k) train as a plumber, or work their way up in a sector like retail to top positions, or set up their own business. I, with my office job (and fairly average salary), wouldn’t expect those people to have paid my tuition fees – moreover, as an ex-graduate now in a decent job, I would be happy to see my own taxes go up accordingly, to make sure they don’t.
It’s not that we can be sure there won’t ever be any snobbery amongst richer students choosing their future universities based on costs, or even on the part of universities during admissions selections. These things, if and when they arise, do of course deserve addressing. But there’s a different kind of snobbery going on here, too, and, crucially, it’s proving quite expensive to taxpayers. That is the notion that academic achievement is the only important kind, and that going to university is the only real way to validate yourself as a member of society.