Andrew Oswald: Top-up fees reloaded: the battle starts again

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The Independent Online

We all remember the original. Now the sequel is upon us. We are about to see Fees Reloaded. My guess is that the coming debate about university funding will be familiar: frustrating, emotional and muddled. The best bit is likely to be the fights. Alan Johnson, the new higher-education minister, and Ivor Crewe, the president of Universities UK, evading machine-gun bullets by doing cartwheels in tight leather outfits - there is a thought to cheer one up over cornflakes - might, however, liven things up, if it can possibly be fitted into the plot.

For goodness' sake, it is obvious that Britain needs higher university fees. Obvious squared. Obvious cubed. Obvious to the power of infinity.

First, what is wrong with asking somebody who benefits enormously from something to pay for it? It happens in every sphere of life. Second, universities are so ridiculously short of money that we cannot compete at a decent international level and our standards are starting to be laughed at by the Americans.

Third, it is morally horrible that badly paid taxpayers who did not go to university are required to stump up part of their pay, through taxes, to send clever children from well-off homes to get a degree. And no, it is not correct to argue that the state should pay for university graduates on the grounds that graduates pay more tax back once they get richer. That argument is false. Fourth, universities are important institutions, and the Government should leave them alone. It should allow universities to charge something sensible, and then get on with doing the stuff that governments can do (such as ensuring that Britain has more and better public lavatories, say - and actually that is not particularly meant as a joke, because that is the sort of stuff that politicians could get right if they tried).

Tony Blair is about as well qualified to organise universities as I am to organise the next reshuffle of the Cabinet. Not at all, in other words. Fifth, all of the most common objections to fees can be overcome by generous scholarships for youngsters from hard-up homes.

Two problems are holding back a sensible conclusion to the debate about how our universities should be funded. One is a kind of cowardice. MPs are frightened to tell the truth to their middle-class constituents: that they should pay up for their children to go on to higher education. The second is that, in a remarkable kind of psychological denial, lots of well-meaning people in Britain have managed to convince themselves that it is fairer to have a world where the taxpayer writes the cheques for people to get a university degree. That is wrong. It is not fairer. It is, in fact, less fair because, below the surface, it produces a huge transfer of money from the poor to the rich.

If I am a young man and I want to buy a £9,000 car, the state does not step in and say: "Fine, and the taxpayer will pay for your car, Andrew, because it will be good for you to have the car." Rather, I have to find the cash. If I buy using a loan, I will pay about £3,000 a year over three years. What is wrong with that? Yet a recent national-newspaper poll of MPs found that the majority of those questioned would vote against university fees of £3,000 a year. Moral cowardice and lack of straight thinking have got us into this mess. Many of these MPs really believe, without knowing it, that we should have scholarships for deserving young people; unfortunately, these politicians do not think through the logic, and so plump, wrongly, for the idea that we should have no fees at all.

My view is that these kinds of discussions will go on, unhappily and unresolved, in Britain until we are bolder, and allow at least some of our universities to be independent of the state. Only then will higher education shake off the tin handcuffs of government funding.

Politicians should not be allowed to set the price of higher education. They are not qualified to do it, and will always be overly influenced by the self interest of middle-class parents. That is why Britain needs truly independent universities.

The writer is a professor of economics at Warwick University