Could do better: Labour announces £6000 cap on fees.

With the announcement by Labour of plans to cap university tuition fees at £6000, it seems there is consensus among all three major political parties about the need to increase the current
fees of £3225 (in England) to nearly two or three times their current level.

For the Liberal Democrats, this is in direct conflict with their promise of no fees, made before the May 2010 election and torn up once they entered government.

The convergence of policy around this issue should not stop us thinking about alternative approaches to university funding. In my view, the return of the block grant to universities is the best way forward for this and future governments.

The reasons are as follows:

  • Universities are first and foremost places of education, in the broadest sense of the word. That should be their priority, not profit or employability of graduates.
  • Universities and the academics who work there must have institutional and intellectual autonomy if they are to teach and research in the name of critical thinking and freedom of expression, rather than promoting one specific political vision or societal model.
  • Funding universities centrally from the government via the block grant ensures that business objectives do not force certain institutions and academic disciplines to close, because they do not meet those objectives.
  • For-profit education services providers are poised to run amok in existing universities; their track record in the US has been subject to highly critical scrutiny of late.
  • In this context, the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, whose goals have never been directly economic, are particularly at threat. But so too are pure Mathematics and the theoretical Sciences, or indeed any subject which values knowledge and learning for their
    own sake, rather than for their CV value.
  • The majority of English universities propose to charge £9000 next academic year. Labour proposes £6000. The latter will have no real impact on student debt post-university; indeed, NUS president Liam Burns has pointed out that Labour’s plans will in fact only benefit wealthier students.

It is time to state clearly the belief of many academics, students and graduates that university education is a good in itself. Yet this does not mean its preparation of students for employment, and indeed its contribution to our economy, are irrelevant.

On the contrary, they are central to what universities do, and many institutions have developed exciting business partnerships. But these have to be led by the universities whose autonomy is
guaranteed by government funding. We cannot allow business to dictate what we
teach our young people, when we teach it, and with what objectives.

We should be campaigning for the return of the block grant to universities as the most
effective way to ensure the economic value of university education and the autonomy of the young people it produces.

Both the Browne Report and the Higher Education White Paper note that our universities are world-leading. Their status is beyond doubt. Proposed reforms to funding, from both the Coalition
and now Labour, will only undermine that reputation and challenge their status
as beacons of research, teaching and the pursuit of truth.

William McEvoy

NB: This is an opinion piece, and does not represent the views of Education Activist Network as a whole.

About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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