Is tuition fees policy out of control?

THE Government’s policy on university tuition fees appears in danger of becoming a liability financially as well as politically.

As observed in this column before, it is inconsistent for Higher Education fees to be charged back to graduates when those who benefit from Further Education have their learning funded by the state.

The argument that graduates earn more and should therefore pay more holds no water as, under a progressive system of Income Tax, they pay more anyway.

The fact that high-earning non-graduates also pay more tax is also only fair, just as it is fair that all taxpayers, including those without children, contribute to the cost of running schools.

Given the current state of the public finances, a fully-funded model for university places is plainly not affordable and so an element of charging is, in the short-to-medium term, unavoidable.

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The current protests by students at the proposed increases in fees are understandable but, in raising the earnings threshold at which loans become repayable once graduates start work, it can be argued that the Government’s policy represents a step in the right direction.

However, the increase in fees is a financial problem not just for students but also, potentially, for the Government.

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Ministers acknowledge that a proportion of student loans will never be recovered. What this means is that the decision to give universities discretion in the level of fees they charge (up to a �9,000 limit) has, in effect, handed them the power to make decisions which increase the Government’s potential liability.

It is surprising that the Government has been wrong-footed by so obvious a danger. Its preferred solution is to create of a university “market”, in which the most popular courses will attract the highest fees, but any such system is a long way off.

In the short run, the solution appears to be the blunt instrument of setting targets for Oxford and Cambridge to accept more applicants from state schools as a condition of raising their fees.

There are, undoubtedly, issues surrounding access by state school pupils to Oxbridge colleges. Critics of the education system like to argue that this is entirely due to lower levels of achievement in state schools but, while this is certainly a factor and probably the biggest one, it is not the only issue and ministers are rightly concerned.

However, imposing a quota of state school admissions is no way to address the problem if Oxford and Cambridge are to retain their elite status.

Might the Government’s approach have more to do with controlling fees than improving the chances of state schools pupils applying to our top universities?

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