Sticky mess of top-up fudge

17th October 2003 at 01:00
I like it when eminent universities show their teeth over "top-up" fees (a coded expression meaning fees which almost cover the cost of educating students). I huzzah when Professor Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, points out that universities are autonomous corporations, and the Government has no right whatsoever to cap the fees they charge.

Obviously, government can replace this lack of actual power by blackmailing them with threats to withdraw all support. But it won't, will it? Not with Oxbridge and the other high-flyers. Suppose they did petulantly cut off rebel universities for having the effrontery to charge pound;5,000 instead of pound;3,000 (which, please note, would leave them still pound;700 per student out of pocket).

The universities would still have the same buildings, the same dons and the same international reputation; but they would have to charge even more.

They might dwindle slightly, but would still attract the affluent and foreigners. And Britain would promptly become the educational laughing-stock of the world: a country whose best few universities were reserved for the rich. There would be an immediate outcry for public money to put poorer students there, and we would rapidly be back where we started, only with a worse social mix.

The fact is that the Government can't do without Oxford, Cambridge and their compeers; and the universities know it, and should thumb their learned noses. The Government will blink first. Meanwhile, it befits college heads to speak unwelcome truths. They are people who have already had tremendous careers and decorations and general Establishment flapdoodle; nobody can hurt them now, and they should use their Olympian platform to stir things up.

Another speaker-out last week was Lord Butler of Brockwell, of University College, Oxford, who opened an even more enjoyably wriggly can of worms. A cadre of parents, he said exasperatedly, are apparently willing to pay up to pound;20,000 a year in school fees, and therefore ought not to expect university on the cheap; not in a desperate world where the state now funds students at half the rate of 30 years ago. His solution is to charge affluent parents a great deal more, and keep the support for the needy.

It is a good point: those unaccustomed to the thrice-yearly horror of school fees may not know that there is a rejoicing in richer families when university begins. Whereas in middle and lower-income households the onset of studenthood causes frenzied calculation and anxiety, in fee-paying circles it is met by a hearty "whoof!" of relief. Even if you want to spare your offspring debt, you can generally get away with bunging them pound;6,000 a year provided they do a vacation job. Compared to school fees and uniform costs, this is chickenfeed. Affluent families could pay more: any fool can see that.

But there is a snag. These kids are 18. They are legally adult, and hardly any of them are wealthy in their own right. Parents could simply fold their arms, shrug, and formally disconnect. I suspect it would be very difficult for a government QC to argue that my income should be held against my adult children, if I insisted on saying I had disowned them. Who could prove I hadn't?

Pandora's box was opened when the age of majority was reduced; you can't judge young adults by their parents' incomes any more. And while we're at it, what about the hypocritical doublethink in the Government's plan to recover tuition fees by taxing the salaries of the graduates concerned, yet to waive fees for scions of low-income families?

Why assume that the child of a low-earning family will be a low-earning graduate? If ministers think that, it means that they don't seriously believe in the much-vaunted link between university and earnings, which rebounds on their other policies, so....

It's a mess. We need to return to first principles. Universities should state the actual cost of courses, plainly, without anybody fainting. Then we should discuss openly who ought to pay. The natural answer is the beneficiaries: the graduates. But it would be fairer to make it retrospective.

There are hundreds of thousands of us out here, graduates of the past 30 or 40 years, who were educated free with a grant on top. We should help the new generation. A retrospective graduate tax would hurt less if it were ring-fenced money, even less if you could gift it to your own university or (if you hated yours) to a rival one of your choice, new or old.

But however you rig it, the central need is for each to set down, in large clear public numbers, the real cost of educating a student, with detail (some lousy universities would find this embarrassing, since they hardly teach at all). The present fudge and obscurity only make universities look whiney, and enable government to pluck figures out of the air and play class politics. Let the light in!

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