The Future of Education


Written by Jared Lynn
18 Monday 18th October 2010

The current higher education funding system is unsustainable. Universities don’t have the money and with upcoming government spending cuts of £4.2 billion on higher education – £3.2 billion or 79% cut from teaching - the problem is going to get worse. The fear is that a lack of funding will see the quality of learning fall, threatening Britain’s position as second only to the USA in higher education. There is also the issue of student numbers; too many applicants for too few university places. Enter the Browne report, commissioned by the Labour government in November 2009 to examine university participation, quality and affordability. It threatens to change everything.

Browne’s proposals offer a complete revamp of the funding system. University fees are currently capped at £3,290 per annum, but the report suggests removing this to give no upper limit; in theory universities could charge whatever they want. However, if a university charges over £6,000 it would be required to pay a levy on each further £1,000. In this system most courses are expected to cost around £6,000 to £7,000; unless you go for a prestigious course in which case you might be forking out £10,000 to £12,000 a year. That’s at least doubling and possibly quadrupling costs.

The re-payment of loans will also change. Browne suggests that students pay back their loans once they are earning over £21,000, a steep climb on the current £15,000. At the moment debts are also written off after 25 years but this would increase to 30 years. Interest rates on student loans are also likely to go up, they currently stand at 1.5% but this could rise to 2.2% plus inflation after you start earning over £21,000, so in theory higher-paid graduates will pay more for their education. The only break for students is that maintenance loans will no longer be means tested and available for everyone at a flat-rate. That’s hardly going to make up for the extortionate price rise though.

The proposals are not expected to be introduced until at least 2012, but it’s clear that students will have to pay more for a degree. Those who do take the plunge will watch the ripples from their loan for years to come. Estimations predict that even the highest earning graduates will take around 14 years to pay off their loans, with around 60% of people seeing their debt cleared after watching the thirty year deadline pass. There is even a suggestion that the rise in student loan interest rates will mean that middle income earners actually pay more overall than higher income earners. Universities are the only real winners in the changes, although top institutions like Oxford and Cambridge claim that the levy for courses costing over £6,000 compromises their finances and teaching quality.


So what’s the deal with universities? Well quite simply they don’t have enough money, especially with the government planning to cut the teaching budgets by 79%. Cambridge University estimates that it costs around £9,000 per year to teach an undergraduate, in the current system the taxpayer helps to fund the teaching, but the new proposals require the student to pay the majority of their course. In theory that sounds fair, but not when a huge number of talented individuals can’t afford it. People are already cautious about entering university and leaving with thousands of pounds of debt; double the costs to a mortgage-like figure and the worries are going to increase. In a recession where graduate jobs are hard to come by, is a degree even worth all that money?

The new system would create a US style fees market which supporters claim helped establish American universities – especially the Ivy League – as the best in the world. They have more money so can offer better services to students, meaning more competition between universities and a greater drive to improve standards. Theoretically this works, but in reality the higher fees mean that lower-income students are grouped in cheaper universities, creating a class divide in the system. There is also growing concern in the US that fees do not entirely fund courses, instead money is ploughed into research, facilities, and administration; they’re essential, but who really wants their tuition fees paying for office printer cartridges?

There are winners in the new proposals but unfortunately the majority of students are not included. The quality of British universities looks set to increase and people will still pay for a degree, but those who take the plunge will be saddled with debt for years to come. A social split in higher education is on the way, and money rather than talent is set to become the big player on campus.

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