Students and their parents, as well as the parents of those children who are likely to go to university in the future, are likely to take a dim view of the proposal yesterday by the Association of Graduate Recruiters for the cap on student top-up fees to be phased out. Fees are currently limited to £3,200 a year but an independent government review, led by the former BP head Lord Browne, which will report after the general election, is considering raising the cap to £7,000.
Complaints about the proposed rises are short-sighted. The truth is that the quality of university education will seriously deteriorate unless annual tuition fees rise. The Government has already announced that public funding to universities will be cut. Thousands of teaching jobs will go as courses and campuses close to cope with cuts of at least £950m over the next three years. Things may get even worse than that.
Fees must rise and there are good arguments for abolishing the cap altogether and introducing a completely free market on fees so that the best universities, which are currently unable to compete for top teaching talent wealthy universities in the United States, will be able to restore their truly elite status. That will drive up standards in higher education which will be better for students and parents, and ensure the UK remains competitive in a global knowledge economy. There is sense too in the suggestion that the government's target of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education should be abolished. There is a risk that such artificial targets devalue degrees. Scotland, of course, is moving in the opposite direction. The Scottish education secretary has pledged that tuition fees will not be introduced there. It will be an interesting control. In time, Scottish universities will suffer as they are starved of the cash they will need to compete to provide the best teachers and facilities.
Measures will need to be taken to ensure that poorer students are not priced out of the most prestigious universities but that can be done by means-tested grants, improving the student loan system and the launch of a national savings scheme to prepare families for the cost of higher education. A good university education is expensive. Those who can afford to pay for it should do so.