Top-up fees

by Chris Bertram on January 25, 2004

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.

{ 24 comments }

1

Atrios 01.25.04 at 3:16 pm

“The flat-rate £1000 fee was supposed to do this and Gordon Brown simply clawed the money back….”

It will happen again.

2

Barry 01.25.04 at 3:44 pm

“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.”

Chris, there’s no particular reason that *any* of that money will find it’s way into your pocket or your office. The powers-that-be at the universities are quite capable of soaking up that money, and making sure that nothing trickles down to you.

Read ‘Invisible Adjunct’, which is in CT’s blogroll. Look in the right-hand menu, under ‘Academic “Job Market” Entries’. There are some articles there which describe the status of graduate students and junior ‘professors’ under the US system.

When you’re reading those, remember that those proposed top-up frees (1,000 British pounds?) are at the lower end of 4-year college tuition in the US. Typical semester tuition at public (state-funded) universities and colleges can range from $US 1,500 per semester (third-tier college, in-state resident tuition) to $US 4,000 (top-tier university, in-state residents), to $US 12,000 (top-tier university, residents of other states).

Private colleges and universities usually charge more.

Judging by the US, if junior faculty are being treated like sh*t in the UK now, they would still be treated like sh*t.

3

agogge 01.25.04 at 4:02 pm

From the point of view of the poorer student, the proposals are almost…good. Maybe better than that. At the moment, they may not have to pay fees, but they still have to pay their living costs. The poorest students will now have up to £3000 in their hands each year to defray that cost. The poorest are much less likely to have any parental support, and 40% of students now work during term time. I myself work 17.5 hours per week in an admin job (plus 5 hours travelling a week), much less than at university or studying. Luckily, my grades have been good for the first two years, but I would be much better placed to succeed under the new proposals than the old.

The old variability thing as well – why should I subsidise a (generally middle class) student at Oxford, who receives a degree from a prestigious institution, when I receive one from a pretty crappy institution? An institution I can’t go to, as you are not allowed to work the number of hours needed to survive.

4

Chris Bertram 01.25.04 at 5:21 pm

Barry: £1000 is the existing flat-rate fee. The proposals would abolish that and allow universities to charge up to £3000 per year although most people expect that that will rise over time.

Of course it is true, as you say, that extra money for universities will not automatically result in better pay and conditions. It is also true that without extra money the means to address those problems just won’t be there.

5

Jolyon 01.25.04 at 5:34 pm

What does the team think about the whole idea of ‘higher education for all’? One view that I have heard expressed in the UK, and which is not without its (possibly superficial) attractions, is that there is simply too much higher education, that there has been a resulting decline in quality, and that vast sums are being spent on people who intellectually/academically will never measure up. What is needed, it is said, is to slash university places, concentrate on a better education for those who are ‘up to it’ (ouch, but you know what I mean) and give vocational training to those who will benefit from that sort of input.

There may be some sense in this, though equally it may be a Blimp-ish and out-moded notion – I am simply not close enough to higher education to form a proper view. My immediate reaction when I first heard it was “Fair enough, but don’t you need a level playing field up to the end of school?” It is perhaps difficult to see much evidence of that anywhere at present.

I recall an article on all this in one of the broadsheets many months ago, and the only person who was said to be willing to speak out against what he indicated was a culture of fear was some fellow from Oxford, I think, who had his sinecure and was thus able to rock the boat without fear of reprisal. One interviewee said that the Govt league tables were concentrating on the wrong things – what is the point in considering only numbers of student per class when no evaluation is made of the quality of the teaching itself? As he or another memorably put it, it is akin to judging football teams by the quality of their changing facilities and by the punctuality of their arrival at away games, rather than by whether they actually beat their opponents.

Given recent alarms on the risks of compromising academic careers by posting to blogs too openly, people may be reluctant to respond, but insofar as you are able what do you think? Less places for students = less places for professors but, self-interest aside, is it a fair view or a load of rot?

6

Brian Weatherson 01.25.04 at 5:53 pm

Chris – what is the difference between this proposal and the graduate tax you mention? Is there a proposal on the table to have graduates pay an extra penny or two on their tax rates indefinitely? My impression was that the top-up fees just are what we’d call a graduate tax in Australia, and they seem like very good policy to me.

7

Chris Bertram 01.25.04 at 6:27 pm

Brian, the difference is that under the proposed scheme only those who enter university once it is in operation will be liable to repay (and if fee variability goes through some will repay more than others), whereas under a graduate tax (1) high earners would end up repaying many times the costs they incurred (and low earners not) and (2) under some versions all graduates would be liable including those who studied and graduated under the earlier funding regime. I’d be perfectly happy with that but it doesn’t look like a runner at the moment.

8

Brian Weatherson 01.25.04 at 7:15 pm

I hadn’t thought about the possibility of previous graduates paying an extra tax. Off hand I don’t think I’d support it – it feels like retrospective legislation to me – but it’s an interesting idea.

It’s tricky to get a graduate tax system set up with any kind of fee variability. Presumably we want people who drop out after 18 months to pay something but less than those who stay for 3 or more years – and this is much easier under the current system than a grad tax system.

It might be possible to have a system where you incur an extra tax burden per course (I’d guess around 0.04 pennies on the pound would be about right – maybe a little higher if you want a tax free threshold) – and that burden would stay with you as long as you’re earning money. That could raise a lot of revenue over the long run without being obviously unfair to anyone or provoking a major tax revolt. It might be a nightmare to administer though.

9

dsquared 01.25.04 at 9:55 pm

Mate, money is fungible.

I won’t be addressing the question of higher education funding in my piece, because I genuinely believe that the two issues are practically as well as theoretically separate. There is no hypothecation and no ring fence around university money. Whatever happens, you and your juniors will be entirely dependent on the promises of Blair, his mob, and whoever follows them. Promises which, shall we say, trade at a bit of a discount to cash.

If they wanted to give more money to universities, they could do it through a graduate tax plus borrowing; it wouldn’t even breach the Golden Rules to do so. Structuring it as a debt is entirely ideological, and needs to be seen as such. I also regard the “egalitarian” argument Blair uses (why should plumbers pay for lawyers’ training?) as bogus and will continue to do so until someone tells me which specific tax on the working class he intends to abate with the monies raised.

10

Chris Bertram 01.25.04 at 10:19 pm

_Whatever happens, you and your juniors will be entirely dependent on the promises of Blair, his mob, and whoever follows them._

Maybe. But if the cap goes and a higher proportion of university income comes from fees rather than general taxation that will surely render that dependence less than entire?

_If they wanted to give more money to universities, they could do it through a graduate tax plus borrowing…_

True. And I’d be perfectly happy with that (or even happier). But since that’s not on the menu and we’re starving, I’ll take the least bad option rather than refusing to eat.

As for the bogus nature of the egalitarian argument, there’s a longish tradition of writing on the financing of the welfare state which argues that the middle class enjoy a subsidy from working-class taxpayers. See e.g the essays in Bob Goodin and Julian Legrand’s _Not Only the Poor_ . For all I know you think that literature is wrong (you are the expert on finance after all, not me) but Blair is surely entitled to refer to it without having to pass the test you set for him.

_Structuring it as a debt is entirely ideological…_

Maybe, but I’d like you to spell out the gory details.

BTW D2, your two uses of “entirely” in the last comment don’t leave much space for the notion that a policy like this is the result of much horsetrading and compromise and for the idea that a coalition might support it for a variety of (sometimes contradictory) reasons.

11

Matthew 01.25.04 at 10:50 pm

Maybe on plumbers/lawyers, but the similar counter-argument, that plumbers should pay for doctors because they will need one if they have a heart attack, always strikes me as slightly dodgy as don’t plumbers through their (large taxes) already pay doctors their equally large salaries.

12

Conrad barwa 01.25.04 at 11:56 pm

Chris,

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

I would say that given the way university numbers have risen over this same period (from about 10% to wherever they are now) this is not exactly a coincidence. Given the changing demands of the labour market, I think many developed countries are going to move towards something similar to the American system where tertiary education is paid for and only partially subsidised and where it will increasingly be necessary for new entrants to have undergraduate degrees. It has been possible to subsidise universities through taxation when only a relatively small group went to them but if its coverage is expanded along universal lines then it will be harder to maintain this and there will be an inevitable move towards fees in one form or another; continental tax rates are not going to be an attractive alternative I assume. There has been a slow progress towards this with the introduction of overseas fees, reduction in grants, the £1000 fee and the current proposals – I don’t think £3000 will be the end of the matter as there will be an inexorable shift towards full fee charging over the next couple of decades. Starving the universities of funds while packing more students into them has created the conditions necessary for demanding introduction of fees, which would otherwise have been deeply unpopular; so it is a bit disingenuous to let past govts off the hook who have all refused to give more money but demand that more students go to university and now who claim that they are going to be forced into charging fees; as if this was completely unforeseeable.

Also I think there has been a crisis in some subjects already where PhDs are necessary for graduate teaching such as Mathematics and economics – where PhDs can understandably earn much higher salaries outside academia. This gap, as far as I know, has largely been met by importing qualified candidates from elsewhere and increasing workloads of those already within the system – neither of which are sustainable options for any length of time.

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

Sigh, but isn’t this the TINA argument that the Blairites will pull out to make sure that the proposal is rammed through – almost like foundation hospitals and privatisation of various other public services, it rests on a basically Conservative fiscal regime that chokes off much needed capital investment and deteriorating levels of service creating a crisis which then becomes an argument for bringing in a market-based arrangement that is posited as the only way the system can be restored without breaking the taboo on taxation (Read govt spending/borrowing). The better way to think about it might be what kind of university education system you want – a more privatised one driven by fee-payments or something more akin to what you have now. I am not disputing that the former has many advantages and could be argued for, but this is really the choice that is being presented under a lot of reassuring rhetoric and one should be clear about the path you are starting down on. No use complaining about hiked fees a few years down the line when the principle of paying your own way has already jammed its foot through the door.

First, the opposition to the measure is a coalition of the unprincipled

Okay, we should stop right here and remember this is party-based parliamentary democracy, if you are looking for a coalition of the good and the saintly, this is not going to be the place to start. Secondly, at least some of the opposition within and outside parliament is drive either by ideology or by the relative merits of the case – they are in the minority I grant you, but that is not a reason in itself to abandon the whole thing. We would be waiting a long-time indeed, if every single progressive measure had to be passed only by those who had no other pragmatic reasons to support it.

Second, I can’t understand the opposition to variability 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 ?

Again, I think there are fears of a move towards the more graded hierarchy of universities that exists in the US; as opposed to a more even picture here. I mean inequalities and quality does vary strongly across the board but this would be accentuated if variability was imposed. How you see this rests on other assumptions as to what universities are really there for and whether some sort of levelling is called for by cross-subsidisation.

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

Of course it won’t. I don’t think it is even designed to bridge the gap completely, just to give a nudge in order to allow more increases later on. The debate isn’t whether this is a once and for all measure; it is how this level of education is to be financed; unfortunately this is not quite that the debate that is actually going on.

13

ahem 01.26.04 at 1:22 am

The problem is surely one that jolyon has hinted, which is that the ‘commitment to expand higher education’ is actually set to lead the UK down the path that the US has already taken. That’s to say, undergraduate degrees will become ubiquitous and increasingly devalued (if they haven’t already) and the emphasis for employment will increasingly fall upon acquiring postgraduate qualifications — courses which, not incidentally, already have fees far higher than the standard three-year batchelors.

The US system for a number of fields (particularly those with professional accreditation) is a kind of extortion racket, since the employment benefit of a university education only truly begins to kick in at the masters’ level, where scant few subsidies exist, and you usually end up with a decent-sized mortgage’s worth of debt when you graduate.

14

Chris Bertram 01.26.04 at 9:27 am

Conrad: _I think there are fears of a move towards the more graded hierarchy of universities that exists in the US; as opposed to a more even picture here._

Contemplates University of Oxbridge….

Contemplates University of Popleton (post-1992), formerly Popleton College of Agriculture and Dressmaking ….

wonders what Conrad is talking about …

As for TINA: There is an alternative (actually on offer from the rebels), namely more of what we have at the moment. No thanks! This may be a long way short of perfect, but I’m prepared to satisfice.

Interesting that all of the “concessions” extracted by Labour backbenchers have the effect of reducing the income to universities from the current proposals. Which demonstrates how much those guys care about HE and how much they want to pander to middle-class voters and their constituency associations.

15

Ian 01.26.04 at 12:04 pm

I don’t pretend to have an answer, but there seem to be so many holes in the government case that I cannot help but be worried about the long term impact of the proposed changes and, even more so, the further changes likely to be introduced.

a – the government target was supposed to be 50% in higher education which is not necessarily the same as 50% in universities

b – assuming an educated population has an impact on the well being of the population at large, then it could be argued that we should all be willing to pay. A levels also have an impact on earnings so are they also to be charged for? If not why not?

c – if graduates earn so much that they can afford to repay the loan, then presumably they are also going to pay higher taxes and it could be argued will therefore be paying twice.

d – the top up fees are not going to raise anything like the amount that is needed – especially with the concessions – so where will that money come from? The concessions being offered will so limit the amount coming in to the universities that the charges could end up having a deterrent effect on student numbers but without actually raising significant amounts of money.

Not for the first time, this government appears to be willing to take pragmatism – ordinarily something I would see as a virtue – to such extremes as to remove the substance of their original proposals.

16

Suruj 01.26.04 at 12:15 pm

I hope Blair wins this one, as well. Not if Nick and the other Brown-ite backstabbers have anything to say about it though. Check out my post on this issue at http://www.surujdutta.com/html/archives/2004_01_01_psychobabble.htm#107460540331518491.

Incidentally, after 6 years in power, this is probably the first true New Labour project that Blair has attempted. After all, even Old Labour favoured devolution and if they couldn’t hang aristocrats from lamp-posts, they were more than willing to get them out of the House of Lords. But Old Labour would never ever dream of touching the bloated and grossly inefficient public sector, be it in health or education. That makes it even more crucial that the PM manages to pull this one off.

17

dsquared 01.26.04 at 12:59 pm

Daniel — fancy a job an a junior econ lecturer in a British university?

Ironically, if I applied for such a job I would not get one, because at the time when it might have been relevant, getting a PhD was simply not a financially viable option for me.

18

Conrad barwa 01.26.04 at 1:01 pm

Chris,

Contemplates University of Oxbridge….

Contemplates University of Popleton (post-1992), formerly Popleton College of Agriculture and Dressmaking ….

wonders what Conrad is talking about …

Well, yes, point taken, Oxbridge is the exception here and its special status has more to do with the peculiarities of the English class system and distorted state funding rather than anything else. I would have thought that continued public funding of Universities would have made it increasingly untenable to keep on doling out a disproportionate sum of money to just two elite universities to coddle some undergrads while others have to make do with much less. This sort of thing might not have mattered too much when only a small percentage of the population, mostly from upper middle class backgrounds and from public schools would go to university, but it would not really be sustainable, not to mention increasingly unpopular when greater numbers of every generation would be going and when many of these would come from the state schooling sector. Apart from anything else this would really sit ill with the kind of populism the Blairite Third Way has espoused in place of a real political programme. My argument would be that as things stand, it is unlikely that this levelling will take place and Oxbridge will continue to enjoy high levels of subsidisation right until fees become significantly variable and carry over their comparative advantage in terms of both quality and (let’s face it) name recognition into the era of user-fee tertiary education. Apart from anything else, if you look at the postgraduate level, you can already see that Oxbridge are losing ground in terms of the better research work and quality of doctoral students turned out. Much of cutting edge work and progress, in many fields is not coming from the halls beneath the dreaming spires; but from other more stolid university centres.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every single university will become identical in terms of their attractiveness or quality, but it does mean that you won’t get a multi-tiered system of A-grade and C-grade institutions; so much as having various departments and programmes which vary in quality and which are scattered across different universities. A move towards the kind of variability being talked about here, will only increase prevailing disparities – of course one could argue that there is nothing wrong with a perpetuation of the Oxbridge system and that it should be expanded by adding some more ‘elite’ universities to the bracket, but I am assuming this is not your argument here.

As for TINA: There is an alternative (actually on offer from the rebels), namely more of what we have at the moment.

Yeah, Chris, if you go down the street and get accosted by some 7 foot monster waving a firearm and asking you to give him his wallet; I would suggest that unless you are also packing or are an expert in unarmed combat (for various reasons, unlikely possibilities, I am assuming here) you have no alternative but to give him your wallet. This is an analogy of the TINA argument, as developed by Mad Maggs, it never rested on there being no actual alternative as such but on only having either some drastic/unpleasant reform measure or by doing nothing allowing things to float down the way they were and have an even more unpleasant prospective alternative. I think it was JK Gailbraith who said that in economics, the choices presented are not ones between the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ options but quite frequently between the very distasteful + bad and the downright disastrous. This sums up the TINA argument quite succinctly, – there is always an alternative but it is presented as being so nasty, that it really is no alternative at all.

No thanks! This may be a long way short of perfect, but I’m prepared to satisfice.

I think, this is what Blair and the supporters of this initiative are counting on from people who would otherwise not support this measure.

Interesting that all of the “concessions” extracted by Labour backbenchers have the effect of reducing the income to universities from the current proposals. Which demonstrates how much those guys care about HE and how much they want to pander to middle-class voters and their constituency associations.

Of course, given the current structure HE is all about middle class subsidies but if numbers expand it won’t be anymore. There are a number of things one can talk about here – like what kind of HE is really needed, why most HE institutes are intent on replicating themselves as old style universities. Whether the kind of education being imparted is actually demanded by the labour market etc. but the point is that these debates are not really happening outside some select circles and what the govt is instead doing is gradually steering things down one direction.

19

trish 01.26.04 at 4:30 pm

The Canadian system has tuition fees controlled by each university (ranging from around $3000-$6000/year excluding Quebec students – they have a different set up) and things don’t seem to have gotten out of hand the way the American system has. The average student debt is $30,000, which is a lot, but scholarships and parttime jobs can reduce that further (I worked through undergrad so I didn’t have debt). (Remember the exchange rate is around $2.50 CDN per pound)

I’m a sessional instructor and PhD student at the University of British Columbia and I’m frustrated by the level of committment many of my students show – a large percentage do very little work and are content to scrape by with minimal effort. Why should the average person contribute any more to their education than they already do? I would have no problems providing free tuition to my best students who will take what they learn and contribute to society, but for the ones who are there to avoid getting a job for a few years while still getting funds from their parents – it seems hard to justify letting them “study” for free.

And to reply to one of the first comments, “Judging by the US, if junior faculty are being treated like sh*t in the UK now, they would still be treated like sh*t.” from Barry:

I’m finishing my PhD and looking at the salary levels for junior faculty and teaching positions in Canada and in the UK (I have dual citizenship) and the Canadian ones pay more – at lot more – when you look at the costs of housing, food, and other basics.

20

jam 01.26.04 at 6:33 pm

I’m generally suspicious of TINA arguments. Most of the time they’re bluffs. If people really want to solve a problem and they can’t get their preferred solution through, they’ll find another solution. But first they’ll try to bluff you into accepting their preferred solution by claiming TINA.

In this case, it’s obvious there are alternatives. If “top-up fees” goes down and HMG wants to fix (gesture towards fixing?) the universities’ financial problems, they’ll pick one of them.

21

ahem 01.27.04 at 4:27 am

Oxbridge is the exception here and its special status has more to do with the peculiarities of the English class system and distorted state funding rather than anything else.

Oh, not so: I’m going to tweak Chris’s nose here, and say that the real ‘special status’ applies to Bristol, Durham, St Andrews, Exeter and the like, because they reflect the true peculiarities of the English class system in providing institutions for many people who believe their class status entitled them to an Oxbridge place, but whose exam results (or, more honestly, whose interviewers) suggest otherwise.

22

Chris Bertram 01.27.04 at 9:56 am

Ahem, I think you’ll find that there’s publicly-available data on both the A-level scores of applicants to those institutions and on the applications to places ratio.

23

ahem 01.27.04 at 10:22 pm

I think you’ll find that there’s publicly-available data on both the A-level scores of applicants to those institutions and on the applications to places ratio.

And on the order of preference those institutions were listed on the applicants’ UCAS forms? That’s the data point that matters.

24

Lawrence Krubner 01.29.04 at 5:44 pm

Can anyone point to an article that might give a clue to an American about what’s at issue? I’ve been trying to follow the story but everything I’ve read assumes a minimal understanding of how education works in Britian. It’s hard to infer the whole story from the bits and pieces people use when arguing about it.

Comments on this entry are closed.