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Last Updated: Friday, 20 July 2007, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Do universities need new inquiry?
Mike Baker
ANALYSIS
By Mike Baker


university students
Students in England now repay fees and loans after graduation
It is remarkable to think that a mere decade ago we still had free university tuition throughout the UK and many students graduated without large debts.

Indeed it is exactly 10 years ago this week that the Dearing Report into the future of universities landed on the desk of the brand new Labour government.

It landed with an almighty thump - it did, after all, weigh 5 lb (2.3 kg) in its boxed set - and the political reverberations have been loud ever since.

The landscape has certainly changed since then. Student indebtedness has soared.

And, despite predictions of a deterrent effect, overall student numbers are up by more than one third.

We now have a mass market, "pile 'em high" university system where individual tuition or even small seminar groups are now a rarity for undergraduates.

We also have a system that is increasingly differentiated throughout the countries of the UK.

Narrow vote

Yet other things have not changed. Funding per student has not improved at all in real terms.

The most selective universities remain largely the preserve of the middle-classes.

It has come at a cost to the government too: the bitter debate over the so-called "top-up" fees brought one of the most serious backbench rebellions of the Blair decade.

The legislation passed by a mere five votes and left Blair permanently damaged in the eyes of his own party.

This week, Lord Dearing will address a conference at the Institute of Education in London on The Dearing Report: 10 years on.

There is plenty to discuss, including this question: do we need another Dearing-style inquiry into how to get universities out of the mess many are now in?

Impact

Before going further, it is worth reminding ourselves of the timetable of events in England:

  • Pre-1997: no tuition fees and grants for poorer students
  • 1997: Dearing proposes all students pay 1,000 tuition fee
  • 1998: Labour introduces means-tested fees and replaces grants with loans
  • 2001: post-election Blair signals review of student support
  • 2003: publication of "top-up" fees plan sparks Labour revolt
  • 2004: grants of up to 1,000 reintroduced
  • 2006: universities charge fees up to 3,000, grants up to 2,700.

So how do we assess the impact of the Dearing Report?

Professor Sir David Watson was a member of the Dearing Committee and is a prime mover behind next week's conference.

He believes the decision by the Blair government to modify the Dearing proposals has "haunted them ever since". He believes the government was "too greedy".

It is true that the previous Conservative government had steadily eroded the value of the grant and had been moving in the direction of loans to cover living costs. So student indebtedness was already rising.

But Labour's decision to cut grants hit poorer students harder than the decision to exempt them from paying the 1,000 fee.

As the years passed and evidence of student hardship grew, the government made adjustments to ease the means-test requirements for the 1,000 fee.

The result was that in the year before "top-up" fees arrived, only 40% of students were paying the full fee.

'Failure'

It was because the system was not working well, and failing to deliver the income the universities wanted, that Tony Blair took the risk of raising the maximum fee to 3,000.

The hope was that the extra fee income would allow universities to offer more help with living costs to poorer students and leave money over to fund expansion.

Additionally, the government hoped to stimulate a quasi-market for university fees. This has clearly failed: all but a handful of universities now charge the maximum.

Nor has it satisfied university leaders; most now urgently desire a further lifting of the cap on fees.

However, as Professor Watson points out, the political compromises surrounding the introduction of "top-up" fees mean there are now serious obstacles to raising the ceiling further.

For a start, higher fees would have to be approved by Parliament and, after 2009 when the next review reports, whoever is in government may have slim majority.

Backbenchers may not wish to risk their seat by incurring the wrath of parents and students.

And with the sensitivity of swing voters on this issue, governments too are now highly nervous of raising fees.

Yet the initial problem remains, namely what Professor Watson calls "the long, sorry story" of the funding of university teaching.

Wider participation

Taking the unit of public funding as 100 in 1989-90, it had fallen to just 64 at the time of the Dearing report, a 36% drop in spending per student.

Since then it has barely changed. Several universities are said to be running accumulated deficits. They hope that as the additional income from "top-up" fees starts to come in they will be able to make these up.

As Professor Watson comments, the customers paying 3,000 a year would reasonably expect that cash to go on further improvements to teaching and facilities - not to make good previous shortfalls.

So where are we now? The government can, indeed, point to a substantial rise in student numbers.

The latest figures, this week, show a small improvement in widening participation targets, with a slightly higher proportion of students from state schools and poorer neighbourhoods.

This change has had little impact at the more selective Russell Group universities.

Many nevertheless welcome the growth in numbers, arguing that we need more graduates.

Others disagree. Professor Alison Wolf has argued that what we have had is "cut price expansion".

She says we may be producing many more graduates but they are "considerably less well and intensively educated" than before.

Prior to 1997, the funding of universities was not a high profile electoral issue. Now - with a mass system in which students (and often parents) are digging deeper into their own pockets - it is.

The next review of fees will be even more problematic than Dearing's was 10 years ago.

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