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December 09, 2010

Tripling tuition fees is inseparable from funding cuts

The Draft Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2010, December 2020 (Cmnd 7986) is a sharp reminder that the tripling of tuition fees is inseparable from the savage cuts in public funding of higher education.

The new “higher amount” is of course to be £9000. Hiking it up at his discretion is a “condition of grant” power of the Secretary of State under the Higher Education Act 2004. HEFCE must then make it a condition of its grant of public funding to particular institutions that fees are not charged above the stated new maximum. Fees and funding go hand in hand.

The higher amount has to be justified, and you can read how in the BIS Interim Impact Assessment, Urgent Reforms to Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (November 2010) – see http://bit.ly/famftG.

No doubt, with the word “urgent” ringing in their ears, civil servants put this together within weeks of the publication of the Browne Review, but not before political compromises with the Russell Group had turned Browne-A (un-amended Browne) into Browne-B (alternative package), which fixes the higher amount at its present level and is the preferred option.

The BIS interim assessment is wedged in its apparently non-negotiable position on top of sheer guesswork in justifying both the cuts and the fee-rises, as the following excerpts illustrate.

“It is impossible to predict how demand and supply will react under the new system.”

“It is not known what level of contribution the HEIs will charge graduates so average contributions of £6,700 and 7,200 respectively were assumed.”

“It is assumed there will be no change in the distribution of subjects studied due to the reforms.” And this inspite of the proposed total withdrawal of public funding for all but a few subjects favoured by the government.

It is admitted by BIS that there are “risks to the financial viability of HEIs after the reforms” -- in other words a giant gamble with the very survival of institutions. BIS adds that it may be that “some institutions who are unable to attract students ... cannot survive”.  But here too it is hard to say how many or when.

The admitted impossibility of tracking consequences or weighing risks would, one would think, undermine the claim to have made even an “interim” assessment of the impact of tripling student fees and removing almost all public funding. But the authors cheerfully stack presumptions round the “higher amount” to shore up its credibility.

The first is that “the current HE system does not incentivise institutions enough to improve their performance”. It is anticipated, they add, that the removal of public funding and the tripling of fees will put “more power and influence into the hands of students”. It is inferred that this will “therefore drive quality and efficiency improvements” by giving students the “incentive to pressure their HEI to drive improvements so as to maximise their net benefits”. 

There is nothing to explain the mechanisms by which this “pressure” is to be exercised, and how students who will not know that their “net benefits” (such as employability) have suffered until possibly years after they have left the institution will be able to exercise their power and influence during the course in order to “drive” significant improvements.

What became of the recognition that in order to be sustainable institutions have to be able to plan ahead? 

How will universities continue to pay staff salaries or dare to publish prospectuses promising that courses will run when they cannot know in advance whether they will have the necessary students to finance either?

The block grant, which enables institutions to sustain their activities, is abruptly characterised on no stated evidence as a weakening “the incentives on institutions to improve their performance”.

So quickly did the authors of the BIS impact assessment work that they seem to have forgotten that in July the Coalition was taking decisions about research funding on the very principles they are now claiming to be unsound. [1]

In a response to a commons committee report the government said: “The Coalition government supports the Haldane principle” and “the dual support funding system”.  It added: “Together these have created the environment in which the research base in the UK has flourished.” 

The government believes that continuation of reliable infrastructure funding in the allocation of which the government refrains from interfering, “incentivises” institutions to improve their research performance?  But at the same time it is saying that only massive rises in tuition fees and unpredictable student demand can “incentivise” good teaching. 

Surely the majority academics who do both are going to be very confused?

[1] Government Response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee Report: “The Impact of Spending Cuts on Science and Scientific Research” of July 2010 (Cmnd 7927) and The Government response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report 'Setting priorities for publicly funded research' of July 2010 (Cmnd 7928)


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Thanks for your very enlightening coverage throughout this sorry saga.

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