Leading article: The least unfair way forward

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The unfairness cannot be denied. A generation of politicians who benefited from a state-funded university education are preparing to impose a market system of fees which would see young people, henceforth, graduate with debts significantly larger than the average annual salary. Yet to continue with the present halfway house of state funding and a £3,290 a year top-up payment from students would have represented a still greater injustice. British universities would have seen their funding steadily decline and students would have seen the quality of their teaching deteriorate.

And the alternatives that have been suggested would have created an unfairness of a different sort. An increase in general taxation to pay for the rising costs of universities would require the entire working population to pick up the bill for a service from which graduates make a significant personal financial benefit. And a graduate tax, though attractive in principle, would have been difficult to collect and would have not have guaranteed an independent future for our universities.

The Coalition Government, in accepting the proposals of the Browne Review on university funding yesterday, is moving in the direction of the least unfair reform on offer. University finances should, over time, improve and the independence of these institutions will be enhanced. Meanwhile graduates, who on average earn around £100,000 more than non-graduates over their working lifetimes, will fund the bulk of the cost of their higher education. The burden will not be welcomed, but their shoulders will, on the whole, be broad enough to bear it.

The Browne Review also contains some progressive proposals, such as increasing the earnings threshold at which students begin to pay back their loans to £21,000, exempting part-time students from up-front fees, universal maintenance loans and higher grants for students from deprived backgrounds. And because of the higher repayment threshold, the lowest earning third of graduates would also, over their lifetimes, pay back less than the highest earning third. All this is welcome and represents an improvement on the existing arrangements.

Fears that higher fees will reverse all the progress of recent decades in opening up higher education are unlikely to be fulfilled. Students generally recognise that a university education is a sound investment in their future, as witnessed by the increase in applications since the introduction of tuition fees and also the spike in interest since the onset of recession in 2008. And it would actually be beneficial if the price tag that will be attached to a degree encourages individuals to think hard about the value for money offered by their course. This will put universities under pressure to improve their performance. Competition between institutions should drive out weak teaching.

Yet this overhaul needs to be accompanied by some safeguards. We cannot be certain how talented students from less-advantaged backgrounds will respond to the inevitable hike in fees charged by the most famous academic institutions. The present level of fees has not been a disincentive, but a doubling of this rate could well be. And the improved financial grants suggested by the Browne Review might prove inadequate to counteract this. The intake of all higher education institutions will need to be closely monitored to ensure that our most prestigious universities do not once again become enclaves of the privileged.

Higher education is a public good that also, mostly, confers considerable private benefits. The state's responsibility lies in providing loans to cover up-front funding and guaranteeing access to all those with the talent to benefit. The most important principle here is that no one should be deterred from higher education by the cost of a degree. That is the issue of fairness that ministers must focus on relentlessly as they push through this difficult, but necessary, reform of higher education funding.

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