Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Fees: The Experiment That Has Failed Us All

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Fees: The Experiment That Has Failed Us All

Article excerpt

...Toni Pearce calls on v-cs to acknowledge that students, the sector and taxpayers are all worse off because of the coalition's reforms

Last week, following a nine-month inquiry, a commission of education and business leaders said that it "fundamentally" questioned a funding system that charges for higher education "at a rate where the average graduate will not be able to pay it back".

The Higher Education Commission's report, Too Good to Fail: The Financial Sustainability of Higher Education in England, is the latest in a long line to argue that the current funding system for higher education is unsustainable. The government's own figures have shown that the prospect of a huge black hole looming over the budget is very real. While ministers have been quick to dismiss such concerns, they can no longer ignore the sheer weight of evidence: this is a system that is bad for students, bad for the sector and bad for the taxpayer.

But too much discussion about the funding of higher education ignores vital questions about the principles upon which such a system should be based, including the question of who benefits from higher education.

The current system is based on the principle that most of the benefit goes to the individuals who study for a degree - but this idea is fundamentally wrong.

Since the peak of the Industrial Revolution, the economic value of higher education in the UK - to society, public life and private businesses - has continued to increase, while the relative financial value of a degree to an individual has declined. Yet individuals are bearing more and more of the financial cost.

I believe that the UK tertiary education system is one of the greatest public systems that we have, that we should deem it to be of the same level of value to society as primary and secondary education, the NHS and other public services, that it should be paid for in the same way, and that everyone should have access to it.

I did not go to university but I am more than happy to pay for others to have access to universal schooling and healthcare, and I would love to have the opportunity to pay for them to have universal access to higher education. And I believe the public would too.

Ministers promised that the new system would force universities to improve quality in a bid to attract students. In reality, universities have been forced to ramp up their spending on marketing (a 33 per cent increase between 2010-11 and 2012-13, according to a Freedom of Information request), and students' newfound "consumer" power does not extend much further than their power to choose their university. …

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