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HEi-think: Universities must work harder to win debate over fees

As the debate over whether tuition fees should go up or down intensifies, a new book from the Higher Education Policy Institute presents a range of views from across the sector on how HE institutions can show they are providing students with value for money. HEPI’s Director Nick Hillman argues that in the current economic and political climate the sector has more work to do to convince policymakers of this.

 

 

As Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, Professor Edward Acton drove through reforms to teaching and learning that saw his institution come top of the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey. As a leader, he also thought deeply about public policy and, in May 2014, he provided a sharp warning to his fellow Vice-Chancellors:

the [higher education] sector still has not articulated the necessary minimum in either staff or student input essential for degree-level study. That leaves it all too easy for government/society to imagine there is scope for cutting the unit of resource without damaging student education.

The key objective of HEPI’s first ever book, What do I get?’ Ten essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice, which is published today, is responding to that challenge. The contributors include Edward Acton himself and the current vice chancellors of the University of the Arts London and the University of the West of Scotland.

To many in the sector, it seems obvious that universities should receive more money. That argument is not limited to any one sort of institution. Our oldest institutions say that they need more income to maintain their intensive teaching methods. Our specialist institutions claim they need more cash to cover the costs of the necessary kit. And our newer universities say concentration of the research budget has left them short of money, which is ultimately felt in the classroom too.

But these messages do not resonate fully with policymakers. That is frustrating to many in the higher education sector. But, if you are wondering what has gone wrong, conduct this thought experiment.

  • First, put yourself in the shoes of an MP for a marginal seat who is at risk of being booted out by the voters.
  • Next, imagine there is no university in your constituency, meaning you spend little time thinking about higher education issues.
  • Then, consider the cuts faced by other public services in your area, such as the police or social services.

Now answer this question: can you say, with hand on heart, that you would spend political capital backing an increase in the undergraduate tuition fee cap solely on the basis of the evidence before you? If the answer if ‘no’, then all of us in the higher education sector have yet more work to do convincing policymakers of the case for higher fees.

Remember, there is only one mechanism for raising the fee cap: votes in Parliament. Failing that, there is only one other quick fix for getting more money to universities: increasing the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). That means cutting other spending priorities, raising taxes or accepting a bigger national debt – which seems unlikely in the short term, when all the main political parties are committed to further cuts in the BIS budget.

Indeed, at the moment, there seems to be more chance of a lower fee cap than a higher one, and higher education does not always have to cost £9,000. Our new book reveals the secrets behind the success of some lower-cost higher education institutions. For example, Ian Dunn tells the story of the foundation of Coventry University College. Carl Lygo, Vice Chancellor of BPP University, argues that the Hefce-funded sector could be more efficient. Alex Day explains how Peter Symonds Sixth-Form College has come to offer low-cost higher education courses. But she provides a timely warning: ‘A lean approach focused on teaching and learning is not necessarily what all 18-year olds want, so it is important to understand what type of student is likely to take advantage of it.’

The new book is designed to encourage debate rather than end it. No one will agree with every word of every chapter. But we cannot have evidence-based policy without the evidence and the authors usefully reveal how a diverse set of institutions are faring in the new world.

Nick Hillman
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