University challenge: Funding is far from perfect, but it
is too soon for another debate about fees

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University is getting way ahead of himself


With the furore over the introduction of £9,000-a-year university fees still so recent, politicians might expect to be spared another round of controversy on the subject. They would be wrong, however. But the latest brickbats are not from prospective students or campaign groups, they are from one of Britain’s most prestigious educational establishments.

According to the Vice-Chancellor, Oxford University’s “world-class education system” is being jeopardised by a shortfall of £70m in annual income from undergraduate teaching. Because of the cap on fees, a service that is costing almost £16,000 per student per year to provide is only bringing in £9,000.

There is some sense in Professor Andrew Hamilton’s argument. He is right that it makes little sense for all universities to be charging the same, regardless of the quality or quantity of teaching that they offer. He is also right to point out that £9,000 does not cover the costs of our best institutions, which risks eroding standards. And he is right, too, that there is room for a debate about the extent to which market principles should be applied to the tertiary education sector, given the hybrid nature of the current arrangements.

But the Vice-Chancellor is way ahead of himself, nonetheless. Not because there is any inalienable argument against  some institutions putting up their fees. Nor because his pledge of extra measures to ensure that the less well-off do not miss out is not to be believed. Fees need not, after all, penalise poorer students, given that there is no up-front cost and repayment does not begin until the graduate is earning more than £21,000 a year.

The problem is that, after barely more than 12 months, the current arrangements have simply not been in place long enough to evaluate them sensibly. It is possible, for example, that some less illustrious universities may be forced to drop their prices, if prospective students begin to vote with their feet. Equally, it is not yet certain what effect higher charges have had on applications. The first intake, in September 2012, may have been markedly down, but this year’s numbers were back to normal.

Until it is clear how the existing scheme is working, then, there can be little meaningful discussion of changes to it. And there is also the politics to consider. No party will be willing to engage in a discussion of this type ahead of the next election, and quite possibly not afterwards either.

The good news is that there may not be the hurry that Professor Hamilton implies. Oxford’s shortfall did not start with £9,000 tuition fees and the concomitant fall in state funding; the university was not receiving £16,000 per student before either. If the gap has been filled so far, it can continue to be, for the near future at least. That is not to say that the debate about university funding is not needed. Just that it will not happen soon.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little