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government some $1.3 billionmore than anticipated to
subsidize students while they are in school, according to the
research arm of the House of Commons—almost half of what
it hoped to save by cutting direct payments to the universities
in the first place. (The Higher Education Policy Institute,
which is based in Oxford, also calculates that the government’s
projections of income-based repayments are based on overly
optimistic estimates of what students will earn when they
“The one bit that will stay on the main public accounts is
the estimate of what won’t be repaid, and the estimates vary
wildly around howmuch will be repaid and not repaid,” said
Thomas. “As a result, the government are going to have to find
extra money, because they’re not going to find as many savings
as they thought.” One result, he said, is that the cuts in direct
appropriations to universities may have to be even deeper. So
while students would be paying much, muchmore tuition,
they’d be getting much, much less.
In fact, many universities have already merged or closed
departments and reduced services and staffs. “I can’t see the
reasoning in cutting so much and then raising fees on top of
that,” said Jasmine Dunning, who plans to begin at university
next year but is already taking part in the Manchester sit-in.
“They do need to make up their minds.”
Then there is the vexing issue of how to make European
Union students who go to university in England repay their
tuition after graduation. Under EU rules they have to be
treated (and charged) the same as English students, but when
they return home they will be out of UK jurisdiction. EU
students already owe the British government $269 million, up
from $68 million in 2008, even without the tripling in fees, and
the number of EU students at English universities continues
to rise significantly. “It seems obvious to me, but it seems
difficult for the government to admit, that it will be much
more difficult to get the loans repaid by students living in other
countries,” said HEPI’s Bekhradnia. (Non-
EU foreign students, many from the United
States, pay tuition of as much as $41,860, a
huge source of income for the universities,
which have been fighting a change in visa rules
expected to significantly reduce it. Last year
one out of every ten dollars earned by English
higher-education institutions was paid in by
non-EU students from abroad.)
In the end, Bekhradnia said, “if the sums
were right, it could give rise to savings in
public spending. The reality is that the sums
are probably wrong, and the spending will be,
if not as great as now, then not very much less.
The taxpayer may be better off, but I suspect
not, because the government will probably be
paying more than it bargained for.”
The government has warned that if too many universities
charge the highest fees, it will retaliate by making deeper
cuts in direct allocations, including for research. Settling
so widely on the maximum tuition will be “extremely hard
for institutions to defend,”Willetts said in a speech at the
University of Nottingham. He said some were “rushing to
£9,000 without thinking about the impact on students.”
Willetts is also trying to foster competition by supporting
private universities, including private, for-profits with U.S.
ties such as BPP, owned by University of Phoenix parent the
Apollo Group.
Even in the worst case, Willetts said, the math does add
up. “If you replace £1,000 of teaching grants with £1,000 of
fees and loans, of which you get back even £700, it makes
sense all around,” compared to a current systemunder which
the government recoups none of its investment in higher
education. “And for the universities there’s the same amount of
resource coming in as there was before. I see it as a win-win.”
Besides, Willetts said, the change will bring a needed
structural reform. Where now the government sets enrollment
numbers, and funds universities based on them, “In future,
the money will go with the students to the universities that the
students choose. It is a liberalization,” he said. “We are trying
to move toward a muchmore flexible system at the micro
level. The competition will be first of all between existing
universities, because we hope it will be easier for universities
at the high end to expand their places. But there will indeed be
alternative providers and a flexibility in the system to ensure
that alternatives will come in. We’ve already got some, like BPP,
but I suspect there will be more.”
Even here, Bekhradnia said, “The rhetoric is that the
taxpayers shouldn’t fund teaching directly. That suggests that
the public benefit of higher education is close to zero. The
private benefit is all there is, and the student should be forced
to pay.”
Back inManchester, the city council, to no one’s surprise,
passes its austerity budget, and the students return to their
sit-in. Charlotte Palmer takes another drag on her cigarette.
Wait until the higher charges take effect, she says. Then you’ll
see real protests.
JonMarcus is a writer based in Boston who covers higher
education in the U.S. for the (UK)
Times Higher Education
At the University
of Manchester two
lecture halls have
been occupied
since February by
small groups of
students in protest
of the fee increase.
Gareth Thomas, the Labour Party’s shadow minister for
education, says the government’s plan to recover tuition costs
from students after they graduate is “smoke and mirrors.”
David Levenson, Black Star, for CrossTalk