Thursday, October 21, 2010

Student fees and transatlantic misunderstandings

Lord Browne's review of university funding dominates the thoughts of many people at the moment, not least this household. This entry won't be about citizenship or immigration but about student fees in order to address the incredible misunderstandings upon which politicians are making transatlantic comparisons at the moment.

The review proposes raising university fees substantially, throwing in the possibility of unlimited fees. Many politicians draw parallels to the American system, where well-known, top-class universities like Harvard charge upwards of $50,000 a year. Yet such comparisons are generally hollow without a deeper understanding of the American private university system.

While Harvard's pricetag may be $50,000 a year, it is a heavily endowed university committed to removing financial barriers for students good enough to be accepted. It offers means-tested grants that can make the education nearly free for students coming from families with incomes under $60,000 a year. In fact, at Yale, students coming from such income backgrounds were expected on average to contribute about $2,600 a year - including room and board. At Harvard, nearly 70 per cent of students receive aid, and the other 30 per cent would be from families with incomes over $120,000 per year.

Private American universities are able to provide such levels of grants through substantial endowments. During the 2010-11 year alone, Harvard anticipates giving out $158 million in need-based assistance. British universities cannot even begin to match such levels of private holdings to subsidize education.

At the other end of the spectrum, America also has a system of junior colleges that can cost as little as $150 a term and give a qualification equivalent to half of a bachelor's degree, after which the recipient can transfer to a full-fledged university to complete his/her education. This offers a good option for students whose families do not have enough money to pay for a four-year degree and whose grades are not competitive enough to draw a merit-based scholarship from a well-ranked university.

Without such alternatives in place, Britain's discussions of such fast, possibly uncapped, fee rises are ridiculous. Why would a top-calibre student choose to study at a good UK university in the face of high fees if s/he could gain a place at an American university and pay less?

There is one other problem that needs to be addressed. The review says that the funding structure of the universities is unsustainable and that the students must contribute more to their education. On the surface, this is somewhat understandable, though there are logical fallacies that were pointed out in the previous blog post. Now, however, it emerges that Osborne is proposing 80% cuts to government funding for universities, essentially shifting the burden of education from the government to the students. Yet students will - reasonably, it would seem - expect higher standards if they're going to pay twice as much, standards that it will be impossible to meet because the departments will have the same budget as they do now, simply a different source of income. Raising student fees cannot be seen as an alternative to government investment, and there can be no doubt that it will hit the poorest the hardest.

Are we really all in it together?

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