These straitened times may not be the best moment to talk about raising tuition fees. Yet, many vice-chancellors believe that higher fees are vital to retain the quality of their teaching and remain internationally competitive. And the Government has promised a review next year.
But even if he recovers some of his popularity by then, Gordon Brown will hardly want to go into a 2010 election advocating yet higher fees. Moreover, John Denham, the universities secretary, was among a group of backbenchers critical of top-up fees when Tony Blair struggled to introduce them.
So, those who want higher fees will need to make the case not only to sceptical Labour ministers but also to leading Conservatives, who may have repented their earlier opposition but will not want to go it alone. This is why a review should be cross-party – and report after the 2010 election. This would take the sting out of fees in the campaign, even if the Liberal Democrats remained opposed.
There are precedents. In 1996, David Blunkett was asked by the then Conservative education secretary, Gillian Shephard, to agree to Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education, which paved the way for the £1,000 tuition fee after the 1997 election. Blunkett, who had by then been persuaded of the case by vice-chancellors, nominated four members of the Dearing team. He was regularly briefed by Sir Ron, and was able to share with him Labour's own thinking on higher education policy. It would be wise for John Denham to invite his Conservative opposite number, David Willetts, to do the same when he decides on the composition of next year's review.
But vice-chancellors will need to do more to make the case today. The current £3,145 fee has only been in place since 2006, and it is already clear that the critics of top-up fees were wrong to expect a permanent dip in undergraduate applications. English applications to English universities for 2008 are up 9.4 per cent on last year, while 2007 acceptances were up 6.2 per cent on 2006.
Yet, it is one thing to have defied the critics over the higher fees; it is another to demand a further 58 per cent increase at a time when families are tightening their belts (even if the fees only have to be paid, in practice, after graduation). And most vice-chancellors do see a £5,000 fee as their goal, though this is still much lower than what most overseas students pay.
Moreover, any review would need to extend wider than fees. The idea of a review was initially intended to placate backbenchers wary of the social impact of fees as much as vice-chancellors anxious to charge more. And while the participation divide between middle class and poorer students has actually narrowed slightly, it remains large.
The review should also consider how best to use the third of fee income that universities are expected to spend on access. It should consider the growing evidence that bursaries are doing little to narrow the social divide, and that the best place to invest access resources is with young people from the early years of secondary school, getting them to visit universities and meet students from the same background as themselves, and inspiring them with innovative lectures and ideas. More university sponsorship of academies and secondary schools, where strong links develop between both institutions, could go a long way to change young minds.
And Brown is likely to want it to reflect on the fact that universities have one of the lightest accountability frameworks in the publicly funded sector. Such independence has fostered innovative research, but students' ability to demand better teaching is still fairly constrained. The annual student survey needs to be stronger and more independent; the review should examine how students could get better value for money when they pay more.
That's an extra scrutiny that universities should welcome. After all, the Higher Education Policy Institute recently warned that overseas students – who pay significantly higher fees than their British counterparts for the same courses – could turn elsewhere if they don't get better teaching. The review should recognise the need for students and parents to feel they are gaining something extra for any higher fees.
With Oxford trying to raise £1.25bn, the review should also look at the potential for endowments, and examine whether the Government's match-funding scheme – which rewards universities financially for successful fundraising – should be extended.
Whatever its remit, one thing is sure: it needs cross-party support to have the courage of its convictions. And that's something vice-chancellors and politicians should agree on.
The writer was a senior adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett on education. www.conorfryan.blogspot.com
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