A fair response to the crisis in our universities

OCt 13, 2010, Telegraph View: Students are the ones who will benefit financially from a degree and it is right that they carry the cost.

Anyone looking at the performance of our universities could be mistaken for concluding that they are in pretty fine fettle. Four of them consistently rank in the global top 10 – Cambridge currently occupies the top slot – while their success at garnering Nobel prizes is second only to that of American institutions. Regrettably, these appearances are deceptive. Higher education is teetering on the brink of financial collapse.

The last government’s introduction of tuition fees was a brave but insufficient step. To make the measure palatable to its own MPs it was forced to set a cap on those fees, which currently stands at £3,290 a year and applies to all universities, from the world beaters to the also-rans. This was never going to be a sustainable formula, even without the imminent cuts in government funding. The universities are being starved of finance at a time when the need for a highly educated workforce has never been greater

The review of higher education funding by Lord Browne of Madingley offers a sophisticated – and, in the view of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, “persuasive” – solution. It would create a genuine market in higher education by allowing universities to charge the fees they want; the money would follow the student. As the report observes, competition generally raises quality. The best institutions with the highest standards would be able to charge far more and weaker institutions would be forced to charge less – some may even go to the wall. At the same time, it would deter many less academically inclined youngsters from applying to university at all, and that is no bad thing. Vocational training is a more worthwhile prospect for many than a gimcrack degree from a struggling institution.

For competition to work, there must be greater transparency from the universities about the teaching they offer, their success rate and what qualifications will mean in terms of career prospects. It must also be made easier for students to switch between universities – it is not unusual in the US, for example, for an undergraduate to start at a low-cost institution before transferring to somewhere prestigious to graduate.

This will be painful for students, who will have to foot the bill. But Lord Browne has proposed elaborate mechanisms to ensure the poorest are not disadvantaged and that no one will repay their fees until they are earning a decent salary. Students facing big debts on graduation will complain that this is not fair. Yet they are the ones who will benefit financially from a degree and it is right that they carry the cost. The alternative is for frequently lower-paid taxpayers to do so – and there is nothing fair about that