How to fix our universities – cap the number of students

Feb 19, 2018 by

Theresa May has finally diagnosed the problems in higher education, but she’s still reaching the wrong answers

Sonia Sodha –

It’s not news that Theresa May can’t do politics. So the prime minister railing against “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” – one engineered by her own government colleagues, which she voted to introduce – feels like a classically May misstep.

But politics aside, May is asking some of the right questions. She just doesn’t have the answers. The current student funding system is a product of government cock-up.

Universities got a huge funding boost back in 2012 when the fee cap was tripled, because ministers naively believed universities when they said they wouldn’t, as a rule, charge the maximum allowed. But of course, they did. And the system has some serious anomalies. For more than eight in 10 graduates, it functions as a graduate tax: they will end up repaying 9p of every pound they earn over £25,000 for 30 years, after which any remaining debt gets written off. But young people with rich parents can opt to pay far less by paying their fees up front.

There are three tough questions that need asking. First, how much funding should universities be getting to provide degrees? Why have we hugely increased their per-student funding – now 50% higher than it was in 2005 – when schools and further education colleges are seeing per-pupil funding cut? Why do universities get paid so much more on average than secondary schools to provide a full-time education? And why do they get similar amounts of funding to deliver degrees that cost vastly different amounts to provide? Some universities may use fees from some courses to subsidise others – but some offer few expensive-to-provide courses such as science and engineering. Should they be getting £9,250 a year to lay on an English degree?

It’s only once we’ve answered “How much?” that we can move on to “Who pays?”. The taxpayer stumps up 45% of the costs of undergraduate education in the current system because of the loans that get written off. That doesn’t feel like a bad balance. But as the former education secretary Justine Greening now argues, the fairest way of getting young people to contribute is through a graduate tax linked to their earnings that doesn’t let young people with rich parents off the hook.

Source: How to fix our universities – cap the number of students | Sonia Sodha | Opinion | The Guardian

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