How much should a degree cost?

James Dunn on the great tuition-fees debate

The turn of the year saw the issue of funding for higher education return to the headlines. The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, announced plans to cut government spending on tertiary education by £135 million. That's on top of existing budget savings of £180 million. Lord Mandelson also suggested that two-year degrees should be introduced. This idea has been heavily criticised by those who feel it would create a second tier of academic qualifications (or so called "McDegrees"), and thus devalue university education. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, spelt out the threat to universities: "We will see teachers on the dole, students in larger classes and a higher education sector unable to contribute as much to the economy and society." The main opposition to the government plans comes from within its own party. 22 Labour MPs have signed up to a National Union of Students (NUS) campaign to resist any increase in the £3,000-a-year fees. The Conservative Party is also committed to increasing tuition fees.

An independent review headed by Lord Browne is due to publish its report later in the year. Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, is cynical about the timing. "This review is nothing but a conspiracy between Labour and the Tories designed to keep plans to hike up tuition fees off the agenda until after the General Election," he said.

The Liberal Democrats remain the only major political party committed to scrapping tuition fees (despite indications that they might drop the policy during the conference season). Nick Clegg has committed his party to phasing-out tuition fees over the next six years. However, they are yet to set out exactly how they would raise the £7.5 billion required to implement this policy.

Whilst politicians wait for the Browne review, debate over funding continues in the media. David Blanchflower, professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, recently argued in the The Observer that British universities should adopt the US cap-system, in which Ivy League universities can charge up to $50,000 (£31,000) in fees. The revenue generated is used to fund places for poorer students. His proposals will find few supporters this side of the Atlantic. Those on the left are likely to shrink from the prospect of a tenfold increase in UK tuition fees, whilst those on the right would baulk at such naked socialism. Professor Blanchflower's idea has at its core the principle that the rich should pay (a lot) more to help the poor into higher education. Under the current UK system, he argues, the poor actually pay through their taxes for the rich to go to university at a discount.

" What is crazy is that people are prepared to pay all that money to send their kids to private school - almost £30,000 a year to go to Eton - but they are not prepared to pay the money to go to university... The poor have been subsidising the rich. And now the rich are shouting because they are losing their subsidy - because they are paying £3,000 to go to Oxford and they should be paying £30,000."

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