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There’s an old adage that no news is good news, and when it comes to the future of Higher Education this sadly seems to be consistently the case. The Browne Review emerged through a murky swamp of rumour and suspicion last week to show the world that, once again, the future of universities will rely on ever higher student contributions for what this time looks to be a reduced, not increased, level of service.
I can hardly say I’m surprised. Lord Browne, appointed to conduct an independent review, has clearly caved to two dominating factors. The mood of the current government to cut thick and fast in order to accelerate deficit reduction is evident in every page of the Review, despite it being commissioned under the previous administration. If the recommendations proposed are implemented, government funding will be slashed by as much as 80%, with support for the arts and humanities dropped altogether. Only so-called priority subjects, such as science and engineering, will continue to receive a tax-funded grant and even they will see a hefty cut. Secondly, Browne has relied heavily on the opinions and reports of Vice Chancellors over the heads of other interest groups and third parties. The graduate tax, proposed by the National Union of Students and backed by new Labour leader Ed Miliband, is ruled out completely based on invented statistics and student views are dismissed out of hand.
The result: fees to rise to an average of £7,000 or more a year and a real rate interest of roughly 2.5% to be introduced on loans- and yes, that’s our loans too. Don’t think that starting university before the Review will be enough to help you escape this latest attempt to raid students’ bank accounts to plug the gap left by government withdrawal from the sector. Last time fees rose in 2006, many current students sat back smugly on their laurels, content that they at least had escaped the latest bout of fees; I suspect this mentality will be different now that all students fail to escape this latest rise.
But the hardest pill to swallow will be this: despite fees increasing by 200%, we and future students can expect to get nothing extra for our money. Rather than being able to expect improved quality of teaching and better standards of facilities, as happened after the last tuition fees rise, the return for our extra three grand will be exactly zilch. With cuts to the higher education budget coming in at £4.2bn, our extra money will be required simply to maintain the standard which is available at present. And whatever reports such as the National Student Survey may tell us, clearly students are not fully satisfied at present. Many of you will already be asking yourselves whether you are even receiving value for money at present; with fees jumping up, I wonder how many of you would feel you were receiving a £7,000 treatment?
Whilst Browne is content to cast his shadow over the ‘sexy’ issue of undergraduate funding, postgraduate students, and Masters students in particular, have received short shrift. Browne cleverly ducks the issue of research funding altogether by suggesting it is outside the scope of his Review when clearly it is not. The Review’s title, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, hardly suggests that it should explore undergraduates exclusively. When cuts come to government research grants in the near future, the impact this will have on PhD courses remains unclear but I can only imagine it will be disastrous.
Masters students, however, are given a modicum of attention, although the results are far from satisfactory. Upfront costs of up to £10,000 with no support available are backed by Lord Browne to continue indefinitely. Evidence that poorer students are put off by this, and that rich students are at an advantage, are brushed off by Browne who, with shocking conceit, concludes that figures suggesting there is a much higher take up rate by privately educated students is simply because the private school mentality drives them on to achieve more!
It is possible I am being a little unfair to Browne. The Review is not all doom and gloom. With such a wide scope it was almost inevitable that it had to confer some benefits. The decision to treat part time learners the same as their full time counterparts, with tuition fee payback deferred until work begins unlike the upfront fees currently requested is welcome. As is the decision to raise the pay back cap from £15,000 to £21,000, allowing those on low starting salaries a brief tax holiday. However, even this move cannot escape criticism. Increased interest rates mean that whilst graduates can wait longer before they start paying, their debt will be rising throughout the whole period, extending the length of time they are required to pay back. This progressive move, therefore, quickly turns sour when placed in the wider context.
The most impact this review could have, however, comes in universities’ treatment of the student experience. Competing for uncapped student numbers and ever hoping to raise their asking price, institutional ability to appeal to the masses will need to increase. However, with cuts to key student services already coming and no extra funding plugging the gap, Vice Chancellors will struggle to set their priorities and, in reality, the student satisfaction ratings are likely to remain stationary or plummet as students will expect more bang for their buck.
For now, this all remains as speculation. The Coalition government has a long road ahead and, with Liberal Democrats pledged to opposing any rise in tuition fees, the road is likely to be a rocky one. I, along with many students, will be avidly watching and hopefully shaping developments over the next few weeks as the drama unfolds and I urge you all to do the same.