UK fights tuition fees

Michael Conway discusses the UK’s drastic shake up to University funding and student fees.

It’s official – UK students care about politics again. Direct action is back on the agenda as the great debate on University tuition fees in the UK continues apace this week, with students across the country staging occupations and demonstrations against the Government’s planned fee hike. The Metropolitan police commissioner has even been moved to speak of ‘a new era of unrest’, and as parents, lecturers and school pupils join the demonstrations, it’s difficult not to feel that I too should be shouldering a banner and marching in solidarity with my fellow students; so heady is the apparent groundswell of public opposition to any increase in what graduates are asked to repay towards the cost of their education.

Yet a fortnight ago, as other students descended upon Westminster on their way to igniting this already smouldering debate, I was rather more preoccupied with a pioneering breakthrough announced at the laboratory where I have recently begun studying for my PhD.

Oxitec Ltd, a company created in 2001 to develop research begun at the University of Oxford, has just announced a successful field-trial of its OX513A mosquitoes; a strain of mosquitoes genetically altered in the laboratory to be sterile. By mating with wild mosquitoes, and hence driving down the local mosquito population, these insects, and the technology which made them possible, could represent one of our best weapons yet against Dengue fever; a debilitating and sometimes fatal mosquito-borne virus which is the scourge of an estimated 50 million people each year across Asia, the Americas, the South Pacific and Africa.

Watching coverage of the fee demonstrations while waiting for the Channel 4 news piece covering Oxitec’s ground-breaking achievement, it was hard not to reflect upon this juxtaposition of the extraordinary potential offered by research conducted in and around our universities, with the uncertainty of their future funding during one of the most challenging economic periods which they have faced for decades.

Science is safe, students are not

The research community breathed a collective sigh of relief on 20th October this year at the announcement that there would be no cash cuts made to the science budget over the next three years following a series of rallies and protests by scientists. Yet just a few weeks later, academics were taking to the streets in solidarity with their students, protesting at the proposed rise in tuition fees which will in part compensate universities for swingeing cuts to their teaching budget outlined in that same spending review. Such are the challenges facing anyone wishing to maintain a consistent and plausible position on university and research funding at a time of ‘slash and burn’ economic re-trenchment.

The fact is that, whether or not one is supportive of either the immediacy or the severity of the inroads which this Government plans to make into the higher education budget, it would be naive in the extreme to believe that public funding could sustain anything other than a slow decline in investment for the foreseeable future. In such a climate, many Vice-Chancellors have for some time seen a significant rise in tuition fees as the surest way to avoid presiding over a gradual waning in the quality and international prestige of UK universities. And theirs is far from being an isolated stance. Indeed, even the NUS leadership has for some time tacitly admitted the inevitability of an increase in contributions from graduates: while the language of progressive taxation has been a useful smokescreen in selling the idea to students (not to mention the new Labour leader), the graduate tax proposal which the NUS submitted to the Browne Review would have meant little more than an increase in tuition fees by a different name – the only major difference being that the maximum contribution which graduates might make over the course of their career would be unlimited, rather than being capped by the Government.

A fair deal for students?

But while the inevitability of a sharp rise in tuition fees during such times of economic stringency might have been recognised by many, a mere resigned acceptance would overlook the powerful arguments, on grounds of fairness and equity, in favour of an increase in graduate contributions to higher education. Graduates are a privileged bunch: often drawn from middle class and professional homes in the first place, the majority will benefit significantly from their university education for the duration of their careers. Is it right then, quite apart from being fiscally untenable, for the costs of their education to continue to be borne in large part by the general taxpayer? The proposals outlined in Lord Browne’s review of higher education and in the Coalition’s policy on tuition fees represent, for the most part, a fair and – to use the catch-phrase of the day – progressive mechanism of funding higher education. Yes, graduate contributions to tuition may rise significantly. But university will continue to be free at the point of use for students, and the repayments graduates make will continue to be in line with their income; indeed their monthly bill will be less than that which graduates face currently. A graduate on an average starting salary of £25,000 will pay just £30 a month. Graduates who enter low paid work or who don’t succeed in finding employment will pay nothing at all, and interest will not accumulate on their loans. Ultimately, higher tuition fees simply mean that these contributions will continue longer: salaried graduates in mid-career will see that modest addition to their tax bill drawn from their wage packet for a few more years. No more, no less.

The anger expressed by students and their families is an understandable reaction to profound changes in UK higher education, and to the curtailing of privileges which the British middle class in particular have previously enjoyed and which they have come to expect as a right. I am certainly no whole-hearted supporter of the swingeing cuts to public sector spending which the Government has outlined, nor a partisan for increased privatisation and the wholesale withdrawal of public support for higher education. Yet fighting to limit a moderate tax contribution paid by relatively well-off, mid-career graduates has never struck me as an issue on which to take to the picket lines, particularly when contrasted with, to take just one example, devastating cuts to the welfare budget which will impact on some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

UK universities remain some of this country’s most valuable assets; the research they support, the students they educate, the businesses they work with and the cutting-edge new companies they generate are indispensible to our economy and benefit people the world over. An increase in tuition fees will provide a vital injection of funding to the sector and a vaccine against the harsh cutbacks which are to follow.

It may indeed be unfair that previous generations of graduates have paid little or nothing for their higher education, but then policy cannot be made retrospectively. It may be unfortunate that the Government has chosen to use higher fees as a means of significantly reducing its spending commitments in higher education, rather than providing a much-needed funding increase for the sector. But it remains the case that, during a time of unprecedented pressure on public funding, public support for science and research will in large part be sustained, whilst a leading university sector which is accessible to all who are able to benefit from it persists in the UK as more than just an empty political catchphrase. For the sake of the cutting-edge research, life-changing discoveries, and the dynamic new companies, like Oxitec, which will emerge from universities to push back the boundaries of our knowledge and capabilities over the years to come.

I for one hope that universities get their fees.

Michael Conway

Michael is currently studying for a DPhil in Zoology at the University of Oxford. After graduating in Biochemistry from Oxford in 2006, he has spent the last four years working in higher education and research policy at the Association of Medical Research Charities and then at the Russell Group of Universities. Despite his decision to return to academia, he retains a keen interest in science policy, communication, and in the science-business interface.

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