A university system that is fair and accessible for all

13th May 2011 at 01:00
With a new government comes an opportunity to take a fresh look at the ways in which higher education is funded

The past year has seen extensive discussion of higher education funding. While the focus in England has been on the tuition fees required to ensure adequate funding levels, in Scotland the political climate has opposed introduction of such fees.

Crucial though the funding debate is, it is but one part of the complex relationships between universities and government. Whither Scottish Higher Education?, published by the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University with support from PwC, considers the particularly Scottish dimensions of the relationships as a new Holyrood government emerges.

Governments exercise considerable control over universities. Their policies in determining numbers of places and setting "prices" for those places, both fully-funded and fees-only, are well-established, and their prioritising of disciplines is already biting. However, government goes beyond setting the number of places for which it will pay, controlling the aggregate number of EU students with clawback should targets be exceeded. It also decides how much is to be paid to universities in aggregate for research performance and how that sum is to be distributed.

Unlike the setting of course fees, the research allocations relate to peer assessment of quality. Government has a legitimate concern over being reassured on the quality of programmes attended by publicly-funded students. Whether enhancement-led institutional review is cost- effective and whether its extension to courses without publicly-funded students is justified are moot issues. Although for most academics there is integration of activities across research and education, the public funding debates, as seen with tuition fees, tend to be separate.

While controlling intakes and income, governments recognise universities as autonomous institutions when hard decisions are needed on resource deployment. In present financial circumstances, this frequently involves remedying budget shortfalls by reducing staffing, cutting courses andor scaling down capital expenditure.

Access to HE for those from disadvantaged backgrounds has been important in the political agenda. Despite much effort, participation of disadvantaged groups has not improved markedly; HE remains dominated by "middle-class" groups. This is partly because for many students in disadvantaged areas the likelihood of obtaining the necessary grades for entry to courses, particularly the most "prized", is not high; and partly because for low- income families, the difficulty of supporting someone through a degree or the prospect of contracting loans may deter participation.

While much attention is paid to the socio-economic backgrounds of home students accessing HE, little is said about others. The backgrounds of home graduate entrants to undergraduate degrees and of students from outside the EU are not likely to be "disadvantaged" if they are able and willing to pay for access.

The period leading up to the Scottish elections saw major political parties, whether driven by conviction or bidding for electoral support, disavowing the need for studentsgraduates to contribute to the costs of HE.

There has also been continuing debate about the scale of the "funding gap" facing Scottish universities over the coming years. The pre-occupation has been comparisons with projected post-Browne funding for English universities; little has been said about competing with major international universities beyond the UK or in emerging countries such as China and India.

Almost 15 years on from Dearing, there is a need to rethink the relationships between government and universities. While universities, and faculties and schools within them, vary in the proportions of income derived from research and teaching paid for by the taxpayer, there is unlikely to be any widespread advocacy of seeing such resource diminish. That does not mean, however, that the present arrangements should not shift to more clearly contractual relationships.

Government might determine, for example, how many student places it wishes to pay for in particular disciplines and how much it is prepared to pay for them. Beyond that, it could consider removing the control number system. If universities have spare capacity in areas important to their strategic positioning and applicants who meet entry standards and are willing and able to pay, as with graduate entrants and international students, there is the possibility of developing new income streams.

Despite pre-election comments, it is difficult to avoid the seeming inevitability of graduate contributions in Scotland. A post-graduation income-based charge with income thresholds and where graduates typically earn more than others has an inherent fairness. Further social "fairness" could be added if means-tested maintenance grants, funded by part of the revenue from graduate contributions, were made to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The research funding regime should form part of reconsidering the relationship between government and HE. It is important to take an overall, rather than piecemeal, approach to addressing the ambitions and future of Scottish HE.

Agreeing funding post-election for two years would allow a new Scottish Dearing to report by mid-2012 on creating a comprehensive and ambitious future for Scottish HE, with measures covering the contract with government and the nature and sources of funding to be introduced from 2013.

It might help focus the attention of both universities and government to contemplate the future for growth and social welfare, were Scottish HE to see future and continued erosion of its capacities to deliver teaching, research and knowledge exchange.

Jim Love, Fraser of Allander Institute.

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