Higher Education is all about choice. The choice of University, of academic course, and their future career. This is one made by hundred of thousands of school leavers every year. This choice they make is dictated by quality of teaching, University experience, and potential employment prospects. All these factors contribute to the perceived value they place on the degree.
Unions such as the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) are giving the impression that it is somehow criminal to turn Higher Education into a market, without taking into account the huge benefit that a market can bring: competition.
Consider two separate degrees here at Southampton: Engineering and English. Engineering has approximately 15 contact hours per week, with fantastic employment prospects. Now consider an English degree: 7 contact hours a week, with significantly more challenging job prospects.
The average Engineering graduate will be earning significantly more after graduation than the average English graduate. The difference? The skills they have learnt are more valuable to the UK economy.
In any market, the cost of a product is determined by what consumers are willing to pay. If a customer decides that a product is worth paying the extra amount for, they will buy it. Similarly, if they do not feel the product is worth the extra amount, they can shop elsewhere.
The removal of the tuition fee cap will create this much needed competition in Higher Education. Universities and courses charging too higher fees will be forced to improve their teaching, or lower their cost. Those offering fantastic teaching and adding the most career benefit to students will become the most applied for, and be able to charge higher rates.
The UCU recently said the Browne review was “the final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education.” This is entirely missing the point. Students do not have to pay tuition fees up front, they pay them back only when they can afford to do so.
Higher tuition fees should not deter a school leaver from a poorer background. If they get into a more expensive University, they will receive better teaching, resulting in an added career benefit. This should enable them to pay back those higher fees. Under Browne’s proposals, they will also be eligible for financial grants.
Tuition fees encourage school leavers to make a choice about their future. The prospect of leaving University with student debt ensures students think hard about the career value they will get from their course and University, as opposed to simply going “for the experience”.
The Coalition Government, as would any other UK Government, wants our Higher Education to be of a world-class standard, while being affordable to the poorest students. While students may dislike increased tuition fees, the fact is that the Government cannot afford to subsidize Higher Education as much as it has previously. Student numbers have never been higher, and we have the biggest financial deficit since post-war times. It is unfeasible.
Now I am not saying that I agree with everything suggested in the Browne review, but lifting the cap on tuition fees is a good move. Students will receive higher standards of teaching, with more choice, still at an affordable rate.