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+

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.