Many parents are infuriated by the suggestion that they or their offspring will have to pay for the kind of student life that was accepted in their day as a liberating right. They vividly recall leaving home to live in a new town - poorish, but free to explore anything they chose. The merits of that personal and intellectual seeding time seem so self-evident that it has, in the space of a generation, become a virtually unchallengeable feature of our social fabric.
But this 'liberation' is really only a feature of our middle-class society: children from professional/managerial backgrounds are still four times more likely to go to university than their working-class contemporaries.
The world has changed since the Sixties and Seventies. Students are more heavily indebted, their lecture halls are overcrowded, and they struggle to find accommodation for which they pay rents of up to pounds 50 a week, even outside London.
A recent briefing paper for the National Commission on Education explains why Britain must contemplate the introduction of some form of 'user payment'.
Maureen Woodhall, reader in education finance at the London Institute of Education, points out in her paper that the proportion of 18- to 19-year-olds moving on to higher education rose from 12 per cent in 1979 to 28 per cent last year. The need for spending restraint and for breathing space in universities led ministers to slow down that rapid growth last autumn - but it is only a delay. By 1996, a larger generation of sixth-form and further education college-leavers will be banging on the door. Ministers have set a target of one in three entering higher education by the end of this decade.
Yet the national system of mandatory grants and tuition fee payments for all full-time students has barely altered since 1960. The only real changes are that the maximum grant is now worth about 25 per cent less than in 1962, and student loans have been introduced to cover a small part of living costs.
A system that used to work well for most full-time students (so long as their parents were willing to make up the grants) is now under severe and increasing strain. Parental contributions have risen to the point where about 40 per cent of young full-time students receive no state funds for living costs at all. Only parents who earn less than pounds 13,630 can expect the full grant of pounds 2,265 ( pounds 2,845 in London); the rest have to pay some or all of three years' away-from-home costs for their child.
The option of a pounds 715-a-year loan ( pounds 830 in London) has been taken by more than a third of students, probably because they are beginning to see the advantages of index-linked borrowing that is deferred until the borrower can afford to pay. But it will be many years before the scheme generates any real savings for the state. It cost pounds 13m to set up, lent pounds 139m in 1991/2, but collected only pounds 3m.
Students have naturally complained about the steady erosion in the value of their grants - a squeeze exacerbated by the withdrawal of housing benefit during the long holiday, and the difficulty of finding casual summer work.
Yet the explosion in student numbers means that Britain still spends more on student support than any other developed nation, while continuing to educate a smaller proportion of the population in universities and colleges. In most comparable countries, students and their families are expected to contribute far more to their higher education.
Ministers are justified in claiming that Britain's system of student support is one of the most generous in the world. But their critics are also right: as Ms Woodhall writes, 'the heavy reliance on grants and the fact that all students with mandatory awards have their fees paid in full, together with increasing pressure on public funds, means that the supply of places in higher education has to be restricted severely by the Treasury'.
Moreover, ministers are keen to increase the number of mature students, and those who study part-time. In many cases they are ineligible for mandatory grants, cannot obtain discretionary grants because of local council spending cuts, and have to pay tuition fees. The children of affluent parents, although they receive no maintenance grant, have all their tuition fees paid, while vocational trainees receive nothing like the same kind of subsidy to improve their employment skills, or to move town in search of better training and work.
Even those on the left who believe that the liberal education ideal rests on the present student support system are asking themselves if it is socially just. The lifetime earning and job satisfaction prospects for graduates are far better than for the rest of the working population.
Student support is projected to cost pounds 3bn in the late Nineties. Meanwhile, the recent expansion has stretched some universities to breaking point. At some, teaching quality is already threatened by the weight of numbers. Vice-chancellors are introducing staggered terms, new learning methods, fewer tutorials and larger lectures. Academics are working harder, and looking outwards to raise funds. But there is a limit. Even if you allow for special pleading by the vice-chancellors, they are probably not far wrong to claim that universities need pounds 3bn to bring their buildings and equipment up to date.
We need more and better. We need top- quality teaching and research institutions that are preferentially funded. But we also need the broad spread of universities to be offering good undergraduate courses to larger numbers of students, many of whom cannot easily raise bank debts, or rely on parental contributions.
If we fail to develop a more effective means of paying for tuition fees and student support, either quality will decline, or access will be restricted to those who can pay. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable.
The only plausible alternative is to ask graduates to repay some of the investment made in their future, once they have started to earn.
The proposal is badly misunderstood. Graduates would not pay until they could afford it - say, once earnings were above average. The debt could be repaid over a limited period, rather than a lifetime. Graduates could, as with the Australian tuition fee repayment scheme, pay quickly in return for a discount. The scheme could, as two London School of Economics researchers have suggested, be introduced alongside a 'user charge' on employers who recruit graduates.
Graduate repayment might give part- time and mature students greater freedom to choose the kind of course they want to pursue. Far from limiting access, it could open courses up to more women and less affluent people. It could be fuelled with a wide range of special government bursaries, such as those recently announced for engineering high-flyers, designed to attract particular types of students on to particular types of courses.
Those who perceive a threat to academic freedom in Britain often fail to appreciate that they cannot expect to be paid by the piper, and call the tune. If they want greater freedom, they must seek a more reliable funding base.
We want expansion and high quality, and we expect the general taxpayer to find the funds. In other words, we expect too much. Either something must give - probably quality - or we must recognise that students, the main beneficiaries of higher education, should shoulder more of the cost.
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