With many of the UK’s top universities not meeting their targets for widening access to higher education and with more students than ever dropping out of their university courses, questions are once again being raised about the Labour government’s higher education policy.
Up until 1998, students in the UK not only paid no fees but also received government grants to help fund their living costs. But within one year of Labour’s election, British undergraduates were required to pay fees of up to 1,000 per annum, depending on the income of their parents. The costs have since risen by £250 and are set to reach £3,000 by 2006. At this rate, American-style university debts seem to be on the cards, which means that students from other European countries, who are obliged to pay the same when in the UK, may well look elsewhere for university experience abroad.
The higher fees, which are to be paid after graduation, are intended to help narrow the shortfall in funding which most British universities currently suffer from. Universities lose some 2000-3000 per British undergraduate per annum on “normal” courses, in other words, on non infrastructure-intensive courses such as medicine, natural sciences or engineering. It is also intended that with these variable rate fees (in theory, universities can charge less than 3000), an element of competition will be introduced amongst UK universities, spurring them on to reduce their costs so they can charge lower fees and attract more students. But so far, most universities have announced that they will be charging the full rate of fees.
Merit not money
According to the government, the objective underlying all this is “widening access to higher education”. It wants 50% of all under-30s to go into higher education and an increased proportion of students from poorer backgrounds who, traditionally, have not done so. But, as Felix Cohen, a Students’ Union representative for the University of Bath, rages, if “Labour wants an egalitarian system of higher education […] they should scrap fees, reintroduce grants, do away with this 50% nonsense and return to a meritocratic system of higher ed!” Fears that the variable fees will “produce a divided and divisive system”, as rebel Labour MP Dr Gibson put it, may well be proven right with highly differing systems of funding and rates of fees in Scotland, England and Wales.
If 1 in 10 students drop out now because of financial problems, it is unlikely that the situation will improve next year – assuming that students are not put off from applying in the first place. Whether Britain will manage to maintain its international standing in education if this turns out to be the case remains to be seen.
UK is not alone
In Germany, a court ruling this January means that universities are now legally allowed to charge tuition fees. However, education policy is the prerogative of the individual federal states and whilst some have already threatened to introduce fees, it is still unclear what the costs will be. Meanwhile in France, a recent report by the largest students’ union uncovered a scandal where universities forced students to pay fees – even though higher education in France is, at least in principle, still free. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no fees in the Nordic countries – in Finland students receive 260€ a month irrespective of parental income and, as in Sweden and Norway, students receive rent subsidies and guaranteed grants. Further afield, in Australia fees are paid after graduation (as will soon be the case in the UK) – a model long lauded as the shining example of a fair, fee-paying system. A recent report, however, has shown that the number of poor and indigenous students has fallen since fees were increased last year.