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universities’ tuition, room, and board costs more than three
times that much, but students until recently paid nothing at
all to go to English universities. It was not until 1998 under
Conservative Prime Minister JohnMajor that they were
charged a first-ever tuition fee of $1,610.
In 2003, the Labour government under Tony Blair let
universities set their own tuition up to $4,830—after having
promised in the preceding election not to do so—which
would be repaid by students after graduation. Universities
lobbied hard for this “top-up” fee, which was supposed to
cover the amount of money they said they needed on top of
their allocations from the government, and almost all of them
immediately charged the maximum allowed and kept pushing
to increase it again.
If any party is happy with the fees arrangement, it’s the
universities, for which the revenues will helpmake up for
almost $4.7 billion in government funding cuts under the
austerity measures over the next few years (offset slightly by
a one-time $435 million infusion to make room for 14,000
more students in science, technology, engineering andmath in
“We know these are difficult decisions, but in an era of
public funding cuts, we have to look fairly and squarely at
who pays for the cost of higher education,” said Steve Smith,
president of the university association Universities UK.
“The alternatives wouldmean universities having to reduce
the number of student places or returning to a period of
underfunding. Both of these would be hugely damaging to
students, universities and the economy.” Less money from the
government also means less vulnerability to political shifts,
less bureaucratic interference, andmore freedom for the
public higher education sector, which has long been tightly
regulated. “It’s potentially quite good news for the universities,”
said BahramBekhradnia, director of the independent Higher
Education Policy Institute. “They’re the winners in all of this.”
But the plan has quickly seemed to unravel. The
government expected only a small number of the most elite
universities to raise their tuition to the maximum $14,490,
but after a brief period of waiting each other out, one after
another—Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Durham, Surrey,
Imperial College London—announced that they would
charge the full amount, just as they had done in 2003. When
150 academics at the University of Cambridge petitioned
administrators to explain their decision in detail and guarantee
financial aid, the appeal was rejected. “There has not been a
really serious attempt to see how youmight reduce costs in
the interests of affordability for the student,” carpedMalcolm
Gillies, vice chancellor of LondonMetropolitan University,
which, in a rare break in the ranks, became the first university
to set tuition lower than the maximum.
Students, after all, keep coming. There are almost 400,000
more students in English universities now than there were
before tuition started to be charged. The number of applicants
rose nearly 12 percent last year and another 5.1 percent this
The govern­ment promised it wouldmake sure universities
provide enough financial aid to keep low-income students
from being shut out, but that assurance seemed to ring hollow
when its own watchdog agency, the Office for Fair Access,
reassured the universities
that they would not
face sanctions except
for “serious and willful”
violations—and that this
did not include failing
even to meet their own
That is an important
issue because the
commission that
proposed the higher
fees, chaired by former
BP chief executive Lord
Browne of Madingley,
conducted research
(which it left out of its
report) showing that
students and their parents
thought tuition over
$9,660 was unreasonable.
“Those from lower
socioeconomic groups
were more debt averse and concerned that the tuition-fee
premium of a more expensive course was not necessarily
worth the associated debt,” the survey found. “Some students
and parents from across socioeconomic groups thought
that variable fees might reinforce a perception that some
universities and courses were only for those fromhigher-
income households.” It saidmost students and their parents
thought the government should pay at least half the cost
of higher education, believing that the public benefits were
equal to the private ones. (In a survey, 222 companies that
do business in the UK predicted that higher tuition fees will
result in a less qualified and diverse supply of graduates. Some,
including KPMG, GlaxoSmithKline and Deloitte, say they will
now hire new employees as trainees at 18,
pay them a salary, and put them through
school, or reimburse the workers’ university
The universities’ decisions won’t just
force students and their families to pay
more than they want to spend. They might
undo what the government had hoped to
The problem is that the government will
have to cover the cost of students’ tuition
until they graduate, find a job, and reach
a certain income threshold, after which
they will repay the money just as if it were
a loan. This has political advantages, since
categorizing these payments as loans means
they won’t be counted toward the deficit,
and the cost of any defaults will be the
problem of some future government, not this one. But Gareth
Thomas, the Labour Party’s shadowminister for education,
calls it “smoke andmirrors.”
That’s because, withmore universities than expected
charging the maximum tuition, the plan will cost the
What’s happening
in England is a
referendum on the
hottest philosophical
argument in
international higher
education, over
whether it is a public
good or a private one.
Less money from the government, with higher fees, is
“potentially quite good news for the universities,” says
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education
Policy Institute. “They’re the winners in all of this.”
David Levenson, Black Star, for CrossTalk