Voters should be enraged by higher education profiteering | Stefan Collini

Tuition fees are changing the character of UK universities – the general election is a chance to vote against the commodification of learning

Higher education policy rarely grabs the headlines in the run-up to a general election. We all have bigger fish to fry at such moments, and anyway universities are complex, hard-to-understand institutions, where the effects of policies take place out of public view. But in this week’s election (they do seem almost that frequent these days) things are different, as the leading parties are offering the electorate a particularly clear choice in this area.

A lot has changed recently in higher education. There has been a huge growth of “managerial” roles in universities: such posts have multiplied almost four times faster than the number of academic staff. There have been the distorting consequences of the research assessment system (REF), including the conceptual error of making various forms of incidental or irrelevant “impact” a measure of research quality. A disastrous version of so-called teaching assessment (TEF) is about to hit universities as a result of the act rushed through parliament in the final hours before it was dissolved for the election. And all that is leaving aside the scandal of rocketing vice-chancellors’ pay at a time when some are closing departments or sacking academic staff.

The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, tells Owen Jones: ‘People are realising they can transform Britain’ – video

But wider public interest is, for obvious reasons, focused almost entirely on tuition fees. Many people pay attention to higher education policy only when it concerns undergraduate education (whereas in practice universities have several other major functions). They are, understandably, chiefly interested in how it will affect the life-chances of their children and grandchildren. So questions of “access”, especially to the so-called “best” universities, arouse passions, as do graduates’ employment prospects. But for the past few years the dominating issue in public discussion has been cost.

In 2010 the decision was taken by Tory high command, without proper public or parliamentary discussion (there was, for example, no white paper), to replace public funding for university teaching in England and Wales with a system of high fees. The Lib Dems, despite having made a manifesto pledge to abolish the (much lower) existing top-up fees, cravenly supported this. Since then, there have been multiple tweaks and minor U-turns, but the basic structure of high fees supported by loans has become more entrenched.

The government says soothingly that only those who earn decent salaries will repay. But they usually don’t mention the unseen cumulative effect of the above-inflation interest charges the scheme has written into it, or the fact that the government has given itself the power to alter the loan terms retrospectively. With fees at £9,000 a year, people airily say students will graduate with a debt of £27,000, but that wildly underestimates what they will repay.

If students also take out maximum maintenance loans, as all but the children of the wealthiest are likely to do, and if they continue to make repayments over 30 years, as all but the very lowest and very highest earners will do, it has been calculated that they may end up repaying well over £100,000; in some cases £150,000. And that is leaving aside the likelihood that a future government will significantly worsen the terms on which the loans are given.

But in the end, wrangles about the exact amount to be repaid are not the heart of the matter. What has been almost entirely missing from public discussion is any acknowledgement that different funding systems change the character of universities. The high-fee regime is already showing signs of reshaping our universities in predictable ways. If students are treated as consumers, they start to behave like consumers. This means universities spending more and more money on an “amenities arms race”, to woo applicants and ensure a good “student experience”, something that may have little to do with getting a good education. It also means the attitude of “I’ve paid a lot of money and I demand a higher mark.”

March 2015: Nick Clegg on tuition fees and trust – video

There are, of course, legitimate worries about future governments’ commitment to sustaining adequate financing of universities if we return to the long-established system of direct public funding. Some vice-chancellors will prefer the high fees system, arguing that it has increased income and made them less dependent on the decisions of a central funding body. By contrast, critics of the new system will argue that education is a public good where each generation contributes to institutions from which future generations benefit. And the public, though uncertain about the details, is uneasily aware that something is now seriously wrong with our higher education arrangements.

Every so often in politics a measure will be put forward that, according to thinktanks and political advisers, will bring about various measurable benefits – only to find that some inchoate but deep-rooted moral intuition in the electorate revolts against it. The poll tax was an example, and it may be that high tuition fees will turn out to be another. Successive Tory spokespersons may try to argue that the policy will eventually save money by, perhaps, the 2040s, or that it will not further disadvantage already disadvantaged applicants. But those arguments are not persuasive in the face of a visceral revulsion of the electorate at seeing education turned into a commodity and rapacious for-profit groups moving into HiEdBiz, including the business of creaming profits from future graduates’ debt.

I wish I had more confidence that any of the main parties was developing a thoughtful approach to the character of our universities. But on the central, elemental issue of public feeling about high fees Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP are roughly right; the Lib Dems are (not for the first time) in no man’s land; and the Tories are obstinately and dogmatically wrong.


Stefan Collini

The GuardianTramp

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