Goodbye, Social Mobility? Tuition Fees and the Browne Review

Posted on October 15, 2010

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An article from the BBC sums up the impact of the Browne Review: ‘Make no mistake. If Lord Browne’s blueprint is put into practice it will mean fundamental changes for higher education in England. Allowing universities to charge whatever they want will mean unleashing the forces of competition – which will mean winners and losers.’

Competition is an essential part of higher education of course, but any system of funding should respect the fact that healthy competition in higher education is based on intelligence and hard work rather than wealth, and it can be argued that there are real dangers in attempting to apply the concept of ‘free markets’ to university education.

In 2006 ‘top-up fees’ were introduced with much the same justification as the current proposals – the creation of a market in fees. It was argued at the time that top universities would charge the maximum fee, whilst less prestigious institutions would be likely to charge lower fees in order to attract greater numbers of students, introducing an element of economic competition into the fees system. In the event, almost every university charged the maximum fee. Leeds Metropolitan University stood alone in charging substantially less than the maximum, yet even it has now abandoned the lower fee. The net result of this experiment in introducing market forces into a heavily state-controlled sphere has not been an increase in ‘choice’ for the ‘consumer’, but the inevitability of paying a higher fee to attend university. Some have raised fears that the implementation of the new proposals may result in history repeating itself, but this time with higher fees.

It has also been observed that the United States has a fees market, yet boasts a high incidence of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university. Yet it must be remembered that many academically gifted students from poorer families in America receive scholarships to cover the cost of their education, whereas under the proposed new scheme for the UK students from low-income families will be left with extremely high levels of debt after graduation. Few people seem to have grasped the significance of the psychological barrier to higher education placed against those from poor households by the possibility of large financial debts, many of whom may have grown up in households where debts ‘hanging over their head’ was a constant worry. Many gifted students may feel priced out of the market or resigned to choosing universities from the ‘bargain basement’, as the former NUS president has suggested. The effect of such a change could perhaps be mitigated if a substantial system of grants and scholarships could be introduced here involving universities, the public sector, and private benefactors, but it is not obvious that this is possible or if it is, how it might be established after so many years of centralised university funding.

A worst-case scenario may be that those from poor backgrounds are deterred from applying to university altogether. The University of Leicester has carried out research suggesting that while most students would still attend university if fees were raised to £7,000, ‘there would be a small but significant minority who would be deterred’, many of whom would be ‘children of plumbers, unskilled workers and the unemployed’. Perversely, one possible consequence of this could be that whilst many of those on lower incomes can no longer afford a university education, their taxes are still used to fund the cost of state contributions to universities which only the wealthy are able to attend – effectively taking from the poor to give to the rich.

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