Lucy Hodges: Degrees should cost far more

Share
Related Topics

The desperate state in which universities find themselves – having to turn away 180,000 applicants this summer while still ending up with empty places – is the result of our highly centralised higher education system. It's the funding and admissions systems that have got us into the mess this year. As the Vice Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, Professor Michael Brown, wrote in The Independent yesterday, universities are stymied by a combination of fines imposed by the Treasury if they recruit too many students and an imprecise "Clearing" process that means they have to over-recruit to fill all their places. This year they won't be able to overbook as the airlines do.

Britain needs to move towards a much more flexible higher education system that is closer to the American model. As it is, our system is run on almost Soviet-style lines, where the number of places is fixed by the centre to keep costs under control. If universities were able to charge higher fees, as everyone expects the inquiry by former BP boss Lord Browne to recommend, universities would be better funded at a stroke. A graduate tax or "contribution", on the lines of the idea floated by Business Secretary Vince Cable, would not be the answer on the grounds that it would take forever for the money to come in and, when it did, it probably wouldn't end up in the universities' coffers anyway.

Graduates should pay closer to what it costs the taxpayer to provide their university education, so expect annual fees to climb to £5,000 or higher. We have a nonsensical situation in Britain where large numbers of highly educated parents in big cities such as London pay through the nose to send their offspring to private schools to secure access to state-subsidised universities. It should be the other way around, as it is in America. Acquiring a degree confers a huge private benefit on individuals – they earn a lot more than their non-graduate colleagues – so they should contribute more towards the cost of that.

But there's another essential funding reform that is needed: the rate of interest on student loans needs to go up. At the moment it is too low, which makes student loans very expensive to the Treasury. It is one reason why the mandarins are so keen to control student numbers. If the interest rate were set at a rate equal to the Government's cost of borrowing, the system would improve immediately. The hope is that Lord Browne and his team are going to tackle these funding issues.

That leaves the admissions system: reform has been mooted over the years to move us from a system based on predicted A-level grades, with a last-minute scramble at Clearing, to one based on actual grades. Attempts at reform have foundered on the intransigence of university admissions officers who have argued that institutions need time to choose between candidates and that this change wouldn't allow enough time. But various experts have come up with ideas. It should not be beyond the wit of Ucas and other organisations to bang heads together in the interests of finding a sensible solution.

A looser, more flexible higher education system in which graduates contribute more to the cost of their courses should put more pressure on universities to improve what they offer students. At the moment it is difficult for applicants to find out about courses, about where graduates on different degrees end up and about how much they earn. This is vital information for putative students. It needs to be published in a form that today's applicants find appealing, not in the dreary tables beloved of higher education quangos.

The Coalition government is behind this kind of change, as it is behind the development of private higher education institutions along the lines of BPP. And today's students are not bothered about whether they are studying at a public or privately funded institution: they want good teaching, decent facilities and, above all, a place at university.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'