open market universities

Lord Browne has released his recommendations for higher education funding, largely covered by the press as ‘the tuition fees increase plan’.

Tuition fees, as a policy, in addition to the 50% “application aspiration” created a trap for successive governments, effectively “locking in” future administrations to the model of an education free market. Remove tuition fees – as Liberal Democrats have campaigned since their introduction by Labour – and the gap needs to be filled by some payment structure of at least equal value. I remember the “march forth on March 4th” anti-tuition fee protests of the time, just as I had started College. I was against tuition fees as much then as now.

Graduation tax, as favoured by Vince Cable and new Labour leader Ed Miliband, would be an additional layer of income tax introduced into an already complex tax regime. Although it seems fairer to reflect immediate earnings in repayments, graduates would pay back money from the moment they earn more than the current income threshold (just shy of £6,500 at the moment, £7,500 or thereabouts next year, aiming for the £10,000 pledged within the Coalition agreement by 2015). Lord Browne suggests removing the tuition fee cap with a minimum “payback level” of £21,000.

Even with this “minimum level”, potential or existing students must see the future of learning as an arduous and expensive ordeal. Those with a level head realise that, as with many investments in life, the initial outlay must be the toughest part. Only education is not – or was not until 1997 – supposed to lie in parallel to buying a house, car, or taking a holiday. Suddenly the University dream became an economic nightmare, one in which those who could afford top-up fees and repayment rates felt marginally less uncomfortable than those who simply could not. Having had the encouragement to apply for Uni – not least through the Labour Party’s 50% “application aspiration” – students should not be forgiven for thinking they have been invited into the educational equivalent of timeshare apartments.

There’s no credible University funding argument anymore, trapped as we all are with a student-focused repayment plan created in 1997 from Lord Dearing’s report and continued by Lord Browne. The market for education has been firmly tied into the fabric of education reform.

Some level of realism needs to sink into this debate. Uni is not for everyone, but neither should it be restricted to the academically able who just happen to be economically restricted. The depressing manner in which Uni as a gateway to mega-bucks jobs and economic stability has been accepted without question is perhaps the more vital question. When did education for the good of the mind become unfashionable? It is this question which has been forgotten by almost everyone involved in the debate.

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