A market in universities: one import the UK could do without?

Why the US funding model will cause British institutions more harm than good.

It is no surprise that the new Secretary of State for Business has led the charge to reduce the numbers of people going to university. To the chagrin of many Liberal Democrats at the time, this is precisely what Vince Cable said in opposition.

The cut in additional student numbers will do little for the social mobility which is allegedly a linchpin of the coalition government's higher education agreement. Universities now have to manage a £1bn reduction in funding, with David Willetts implying that student support is a burden on the taxpayer. Are these good enough reasons to transport the US model for the funding of higher education to England, as David Blanchflower suggests ("The case for higher university fees")?

The answer is almost certainly no. Unlike their US counterparts, the UK universities which are arguing for higher fees do not want to become private institutions. Rather, they want to have their cake and eat it: taxpayer funding for teaching, research, fee loans and student support, with the university then given the right to charge additional fees either upfront or through additional fee loans financed by bonds and commercial providers.

It is no surprise that the universities which want to compete on price and quality on the back of state funding are the ones that have the most socially exclusive profiles. By "quality", they mean not standards, but quality of the "student experience", based on small campuses where students study away from home and full-time. This is very far removed from the experience of most of the UK's two million students, over 40 per cent of whom study part-time, many of whom have to work to pay their way, and some of whom live at home to save money.

A quasi-US-style system would be certain to deliver inequity for most of the UK's higher education students. Like US health care, it would have outcomes that would be neither as equitable nor as productive as the UK's current system. In particular, a market based on state funding with higher tuition fees backed by private finance will have the inevitable outcome of delivering less resource to the universities that contribute most to social mobility. This is not a policy that the left would advocate for schools. Why should it be an acceptable outcome for UK universities and students?

The Westminster government could easily create a fairer funding system. By introducing a small (1-2 per cent) real rate of interest on student loans, similar to that applied in countries such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and by extending the period when graduates in England repay a contribution to the costs of their higher education, the Exchequer would benefit by £1bn per year.

This would be enough to fund many more students, avoid the cuts in higher education imposed by the deficit hawks and even extend fee and maintenance loans to part-time students who at the moment still have to pay their fees upfront. Fairer funding for all is on the table if the government (and the opposition) want to pursue it.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of the university think tank million+

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.