I see from comments to another thread that Daniel is preparing to argue against the British government’s case for top-up fees for universities. A good thing that we don’t have a CT party-line! Actually, I’m not sure I would be in favour of them either if the choice were between the current proposals and any alternative that I’d care to formulate for an ideal world. But that isn’t the case. British universities have been starved of resources for over two decades, academic pay is extremely poor (especially at the start) and we’ll face a real difficulty in recruiting people to teach some subjects if things don’t change (Daniel—fancy a job an a junior econ lecturer in a British university?). So since the extra money we need isn’t going to come from increasing taxation and isn’t going to come from a graduate tax (both of which I’d be perfectly happy with), and since the likely outcome of a government defeat is further drift and starvation—I hope Blair wins this one.
Some additional observations:
First, the opposition to the measure is a coalition of the unprincipled: Labour MPs who have lost or never had ministerial office and now know they well never get their hands on a red box in the future; those who want to punish Blair for Iraq; the Tories who see a chance to give Blair a kicking whatever the merits of the issue (and ditto the Lib Dems). There are also organisations like the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students who campaign for higher pay for academics and better resources for students and then can’t hold themselves back from opposing the only reform likely to fund the very things they want.
Second, I can’t understand the opposition to variablity in fees. This is couched in terms of outrage at the suggestion that those paying for courses at “elite” universities ought to pay more. I wonder how consistent these opponents are. If flat-rate fees are introduced and some vice-chancellors want to offer a discount on hard-to-fill courses, will they also oppose that ?
Third the claim that the proposal breaches a manifesto commitment is bogus. On this I can quote from an email I wrote to Chris Brooke which now appears on The Virtual Stoa :
It seems to me that there’s a perfectly straightforward line [on this] … which seems to me to be true and defensible (though difficult to defend on, say Newsnight or Question Time – for obvious reasons). Namely, that the what was denoted by “top-up fees” in the manifesto is something other than what is denoted by “top-up fees” in the current proposals and debate. That is to say, that what it was proposed to outlaw in the manifesto was the idea (then floated by some Vice-Chancellors) that universities should be able to charge in addition to the £1000 basic fee, a further fee at their discretion. The current proposals—no money up front, fixed ceiling to the fees, some element of variability, moderately painless and income-dependent repayment scheme—are different: the variable fees aren’t a top-up to other basic fees in the way previously suggested.
Of course it isn’t certain that even these measures will bring universities more money. The flat-rate £1000 fee was supposed to do this and Gordon Brown simply clawed the money back (someone should have called Blair on this in the Newsnight debate). But I don’t think there’s a better option on offer. When it rains heavily in Bristol, water pours into the building where I work; my junior colleagues struggle to find anywhere to live on their depressed salaries. Meanwhile our students, many of whom have been privately educated at costs far exceeding those in the proposal, will go on to earn salaries far exceeding those of their teachers within two or three years of graduating. Time to make them pay.