The Report of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance is quite a pompous mouthful. I’ll just stick with the remarkably dull ‘Browne Report’. It was published recently, and greeted largely with furore. This blog post will not explicitly look at the Browne Report, but rather attempt to deconstruct Higher Education more generally.
The first, and to me most important, matter that arises is the democratic mandate that goes with the endorsement of the report. A majority of the population did not want to see the free market enter higher education (HE) – I crudely get this figure by adding the LibDem and Labour share of the vote (fifty-two per cent). Perhaps there are issues with this, but nonetheless, the sixty-seven LibDem MPs all pledged to vote against any tuition fee increases. Whether this is feasible or not, it goes against their manifesto pledge, and so undermines the democratic legitimacy of the endorsement that the Liberal Democrats gave.
Perhaps this point is unnecessarily picking at parliamentary politics and the Coalition, and fails to deal with the real issue – HE funding. This is an issue to which I would now like to turn.
In principle, and in reality, free university education is unfeasible. Equally, the idea of free-market tuition fees is futile; and more than anything, £7,000 annual tuition fees seem most regressive. It is a poll tax on education; a tax that is inherently unfair on graduates. This is because the poor and the ‘squeezed middle’ will pay more than the rich. This is because the rich are able to pay off interest rates more quickly than the ‘squeezed middle’. It also means that no matter what you achieve after your degree, you will pay the same fee.
Perhaps I could understand this kind of ‘poll tax’ if each graduate had unique, guaranteed opportunities after they have graduated. However, this is not so. The flooded graduate market has lowered the value of a degree to be the ‘standard’ for any white-collar job. This is what makes it inherently unfair. If studying and paying for it had a true reward, then higher fees appear to make more sense.
There is a fundamental paradox in British thinking on this matter of education – HE is perceived to be a right whilst also being a privilege. Our education system is seen to give everyone equal opportunities to be part of a strict hierarchy. It does not work and we need a clear break. The value of the degree needs to increase – it is simple demand-supply economics. Our 16-21 education needs to be re-modelled towards apprenticeships, in order for all pupils to be trained and specialise into a useful field. Academia, or university, ought to be seen as another profession, another specialised field. University is not an investment at the moment, it is the prerequisite for a good job.
This has exacerbated the problem of funding for universities. To deal with funding, it would appear to make the most sense to introduce a graduate tax. There have been many calls that this is not fair – it will tax aspiration. This is not true. Rather, it enhances the case that your degree has added value to your profession, and so it is only fair that you pay for the value of your degree. You are not paying for your success, you are paying for the degree that has allowed this to happen. And you are paying in proportion to how much your degree has added to your profession, and means that the more worthy the degree, the more people pay for it.
All of the above require fundamental changes to our education system, over the long term. It is unlikely to receive any attention by the Coalition government.
Looking at the complex problems of education funding from this way, it makes much more sense that fees and funding must be inextricably linked to the value of the degree. From this perspective, a ‘poll tax’ of tuition fees makes no sense; a free market of fees will deter too many people. The best option, as far as I see, is a £500 fee for each student, followed by a graduate tax dependent on the extent to which it has contributed to your profession – paying for the value of your degree.