Once again the public debate on a hugely important and sensitive question is squeezed into a very narrow prism that wholly ignores the wider context which, if properly considered, would almost certainly produce quite different answers. Lord Browne’s review of university funding finally came down to certain highly restricted options: tuition fees were going to be raised (to the limit of what parliamentary and public opinion would bear, subject to further adjustment later as these constraints eased), with a few minor concessions on maintenance and fees loans and on increasing the repayment threshold – just enough it was hoped to squeeze this regressive measure through. But there were wider options never considered.
Towards the end of the process (these things are very carefully stage-managed in Whitehall) even the graduate tax was ruled out of any final reckoning. The Tories had already determined on a sharp push upward in student fees and were not going to be deflected – the only question was how much give was necessary to ram it through. But a graduate tax too is only part of the landscape, not the only other option.
There are several alternative ways of funding higher education. It can come from the Government (i.e. taxpayers), the universities themselves, a business levy, charges to students’ parents, or the students themselves. All of these have an interest in the success of university education, and it’s reasonable that some permutation of funding liability should be allocated between them. It also does not seem reasonable that any one of them should bear the brunt either wholly or disproportionately.
Government should make at least some contribution to ensure that bright pupils from poorer households are not locked out of equal opportunity by excessive up-front costs. Universities, particularly the older ones which have inherited enormous endowment income over the centuries, should also contribute according to their means, or perhaps via a carousel system between them. Business, which will derive its future leading personnel from universities, should be expected to pay a proportion of the costs for the recruitment of its future profit-drivers, just as it should also pay for the skill training of its manual employees.
Parents of university students, overwhelmingly middle class and disproportionately upper middle class, should also make some contribution, on a tapered scale above a certain income level to full payment at high levels. The students themselves should also reasonably be expected to pay back some modest proportion of the extra increment of earning power that university education has accorded them.