Taking a short break from its quest to be the most incompetent administration in the country’s history, the current government of the United Kingdom has today published the Augar Review, the long-awaited report on the state of tuition fees. In it, Augar suggests the cost of university tuition to be cut from its current cost of c.£9,000 a year to £7,500, due to many courses not providing ‘value for money’. To cover the costs of the potential reduction in fees, the cancellation of student debt would be raised from its current state of thirty years to forty years; the wage threshold at which loan repayments would start to be repaid would also be reduced from £25,725 to £23,000.
Theresa May, who has already cemented herself in the history books as the most incompetent Prime Minister, has welcomed the report — but has carried on as she always has: burying her head in the sand and saying that the decision on whether or not to follow the review is for somebody else. As yet there is no response from Labour on the review but given its pre-election promise to not only scrap tuition fees but also cancel all existing student debt (for those who cannot remember that far back, it was the promise that they made a few short days before the people went to the polls, admitted that they hadn’t costed how they were going to finance it, and then once the polls had shut announced they were very unlikely to have ever followed through on the promise), one can assume they are not particularly happy about the findings.
Following the Dearing Report, published in 1997, which paved the way for tuition fees, and the Browne Review of 2010 which called for the increasing of fees, the Augar Review, if heeded, marks a potential new turn in the cost of higher education on this fair isle. Those previous reports have, as no doubt this one will too, raised question after question about the socio-economic impact upon students from a poorer background and the value for money of courses provided by universities. And they are questions that have never been satisfactorily answered, which of course is the intended result of any policy: just umm and ahh your way through five years of government, make a pledge and then umm and ahh again if the public is foolish to vote you in a second time.
When it comes to the rhetoric, debate and whining that has come from all sides since the introduction of fees, the thousands upon thousands of words and syllables and sentences, arguments and counterarguments, points and counterpoints can be amalgamated into two thoughts. The first is that eduction is the best means of removing inequality in society thus the social consequences of any change in policy should be the primary concern. The second is that education is a commodity to be bought and sold in a (preferably free) market thus the ‘producers’ (the universities) and the ‘consumers’ (the students) should be free to negotiate amongst themselves over the cost of that education.
For those who argue the first point, the main concern appears to be that by removing the cap on fees (or, indeed, having them in the first instance) it impacts upon the accessibility to education for the poorest members of society. The impact is made worse if in addition to costs going up, subsidies, as in the case of the maintenance grant, are abolished. However, if that were the case then it would stand to reason that the number of applicants from these poorer backgrounds would decrease in the aftermath of fees rising. Yet the statistics not only counter that claim, they show the opposite happening: there is an upward trend of students from ‘less privileged’ backgrounds applying to university. ‘But the overall figures for applications are falling,’ a potential figure from the ether might call out. Well, that is wrong, too. First-time applications remain constant—it is those reapplying to university that are falling. Simply put, fees do not serve as a disincentive to applying no matter one’s social background.
Regardless it is impossible in reality to focus solely on the social aspects for grounds to pursue or reject policy. It is further impossible when the funding of higher education goes beyond the funding of the tuition itself with loans for living expenses also on offer. In order for the government to offer that financial aid then the government must have some means of raising revenue—and that means of raising revenue is diminished with the imposing of a cap on the maximum fee. Now, perhaps there are some who would argue that viewing those in higher education as cash-cows ready for milking a repugnant idea. But the reality is that the United Kingdom government is already doing this to the International Students who in their thousands every year enter the system. In their evaluation of higher education policies around the world the OECD reports that the UK is one of several nations that has taken the ‘revenue-generating’ approach to education, placing a greater emphasis on attracting foreign students who are not subject to the tuition fee cap than its domestic students. Figures for the 2017/2018 academic year report that of the two-point-three million students in UK higher education, some half a million came from outside the UK.
Why, then, if fees do not serve as a disincentive to domestic students and the government attempts to circumvent the cap in any case by appealing to international students, does the cap exist? With this question we can lead onto the second statement, that education is a commodity and the individual institution and individual student are, at the base of it, two people engaging in a transaction.
It is not—at least it should not be—a controversial statement to say that education is not homogenous. Yes, some students are more intelligent than others. Yes, some universities are better than others. Yes, some professors are more knowledgeable than others. In such cases, those demonstrably better universities and professors and students should be able to reap the benefits that come with those better skillsets. Yet the state treats its approach to education and funding as if it were. Bad universities are able to charge just the same as the good universities and yet suffer no consequences of providing subpar content. It is of course worth noting that the Browne Review attempted to argue that this would not be the case, and that only the ‘good’ universities would increase their fees, a point repeatedly stated by the government as they voted through the policy to raise the cap on fees.
Unfortunately for the students, the standards of the universities to which they are applying is only revealed once their decision has been confirmed and their students have begun. In an open market, one can—with some natural discrepancies—judge the quality of something by its cost. A prime cut of steak costs more than a McDonald’s meal for a reason. But in the world of education, the uniform costs mask the content. Beyond the ancient universities in the land, it is hard to gauge where one university excels and another fails. Ranking tables are often arbitrary and a university’s rank can wildly differ depending on which table one references.
With all that said, the Augar Review has reached the wrong conclusion. Fees should not be reduced because of a lack of value for money—most students have not been getting that regardless. Instead, the cap should be removed completely; it is what the government really wants though it is scared to admit it. But May is off soon, and in time the current Tory government will no doubt follow her. Remove the cap, let Oxford and Cambridge and St Andrews and all the others charge six figures a year for their tuition. The reality is they are probably worth it.