Recently, University of Oxford vice- chancellor Andrew Hamilton noted that the provision of an Oxford education costs roughly £16,000 per year per student, a budget shortfall of £7,000 per student which results in a £70 million shortfall of teaching income per year. At our own university, the cost per student is roughly £12,000, the shortfall is exacerbated by the great number of Scottish and EU students that attend the university with little to no fees.
As individuals, university graduates can expect to earn between 20 and 100 per cent more by the middle of their working lives than non-graduates, and as members of the public, the social benefits of a broad-based, well-educated populace are innumerable. As a society, the United Kingdom has both an ethical duty to its citizens and a pragmatic obligation to itself to ensure that its investment in universities is sufficient to maintain the high standards of its academic reputation. It is troubling that the current scheme regarding university fees is insufficient to provide means for the maintenance and expansion of universities.
As it currently stands, the fees paid by UK students – capped at £9,000 – do not manage to cover the actual costs of educating students at certain universities. According to the director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities: “Our leading institutions cannot continue to be internationally competitive, provide a first-rate teaching experience and offer generous support to disadvantaged students without access to increased funding.”
In the immediate, the capped £9,000 fee for higher education is already presenting material challenges to British universities. The recent strike by our staff and three teaching unions are testament to the fact that the universities are unable to satisfactorily match pay with increasing living costs, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Universities are looking for alternative sources of income, tapping heavily into the unregulated market of international students and relying on philanthropic donations. Our own university’s fundraising efforts, despite having the third highest participation rate in the UK and having broken records for alumni participation, have garnered little, falling £60 million short of our fundraising goal.
The current scheme and price cap is simply unsustainable. The best solution is to do away with the price cap all together and let the universities determine their own fees. This would allow greater flexibility for institutions to meet their own financial needs. It makes little sense to determine a universal charge for every university; every university is unique and not every one has Oxford-level costs.
Further, tuition fees should be universal for all students, with the only exception being for financial aid; universities in Scotland should stop nation-testing and start means-testing. Having a fee that adequately covers costs would have the added benefit of allowing the University to help those who are qualified but financially unable to attend. The reality of the price cap is that universities will charge the maximum whenever possible to help close their costs; in light of that, it is ludicrous that a wealthy student from the EU pays near nothing while some English families struggle to pay £9,000 a year.
Ultimately, in order to both maintain and and advance the standing of British universities in the age of austerity, taking these steps will address the fiscal realities of higher education and, in doing so, allow universities to tackle their challenges head-on.
Professors and officials from several of the UK’s leading universities have urged the government to raise the cap on tuition fees. They say such an in- crease is necessary to meet the rising costs of providing higher education. Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and president of Universities UK (UUK) – a representative group that published a report on the financial future of universities earlier this month – has called the £9,000 figure “not sustainable”. Snowden was one of three vice-chancellors to call for a rise.
Their argument is reasonable: in the next two decades the number of university students could increase by nearly 100,000. Even at the current matriculation levels there is not enough money to sustain UK institutions. The report published by UUK noted that the recent tuition hikes arrived on the back of cuts in government spending, both a result of austerity and an at- tempt to get ahead in an increasingly competitive international education market.
At the moment, the UK lags behind many other nations in funding for even its top institutions. The University of Oxford currently operates with a funding gap of £70 million. Without further funding, universities such as Oxford will begin to fall further behind other institutions.
While this argument justifies the economics of a tuition rise, it says nothing of the politics of education or the function it serves in the UK. It ignores the current economic climate, which finds most middle- and nearly all lower-class students strapped with burdensome student debt and growing financial pressure; many forget that it was only last year that the tuition cap was tripled to its current level.
Raising the cost of higher education would minimise the demographic that could plausibly pursue it. The ultimate goal of higher education is not the profit of the institution but the profit of society.
Education should thus be available to as many people as possible at the cheapest price. I therefore propose that tuition fees should remain capped. As a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills phrased it, educational policy should “… ensure that going to university remains affordable for students and it is based on their ability, not their ability to pay.” This is not a “should” but a must – in order for the UK’s next generation to succeed, university attendance should remain merit-, not money-, based.
UUK has also reported that universities are already looking at sources for funding other than tuition and the government. This should continue: UK universities may find inspiration by casting a glance at their international competitors. In the US there is a culture of endowments, or donation- based funds that allow universities to garner considerable amounts of money from philanthropists and alumni. This system may or may not be ably fostered in the UK.
The financial desperation of universities in the UK is a reality. But tuition increases would simply push this desperation back onto students themselves and in doing so limit the number of those that could achieve higher education. This counteracts the role of education in first place. Opportunities for the educated have never been so high, and the opportunity for a higher education must match that.