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In the Browne Stuff

In Education, Home Affairs on December 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

The Browne Review was greeted with uproar by students throughout the country, when it transpired that Browne recommended abolishing the cap for tuition fees and adding real-terms interest to the amount that graduates would have to pay back. It was felt that Browne was acting without any consideration for the equality of access to higher education nor the burden placed on students by tuition fee debt. This was felt correctly, because Browne was not asked to consider these things.

The terms of reference for the Review were solely about deciding the contribution that graduates, government, universities and employers should make towards university education:

“The Review will analyse the challenges and opportunities facing higher education and their implications for student financing and support. It will examine the balance of contributions to higher education funding by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers. Its primary task is to make recommendations to Government on the future of fees policy and financial support for full and part-time undergraduate and postgraduate students.”

There was a mention of widening access to higher education, but this was in the notes of the terms, not in the terms themselves. Nor did the terms allow much leeway for the Review to examine a graduate tax, due to the use of the word ‘fees’ in the terms. The previous Labour Government gave the review such terms, I would contend, to limit its scope.

This is further borne out by the composition of the seven member panel that delivered the report. Three, including the chair, were businessmen. Two were university vice-chancellors. One was a senior policy adviser to the OU, the and the remaining one a former senior Treasury official. Several groups were omitted: undergraduates, postgraduates, parents, teaching and researching academics. Why the Labour government thought it was prudent to leave these groups without representation remains unfathomable to me, since it is these groups primarily that will bear the brunt of whatever fee rises and cuts come.

With such terms and such a composition, it was almost inevitable that the Browne Review would find in favour of vastly higher fees, with the burden falling on students and parents, rather than government and business. It also blithely assumed around 80% cuts to the university budget overall, which was patently ludicrous (cuts stand at just over 7% for universities as a whole). Consequently, its findings were heavily stilted towards a student-funded university system.

But why would the Labour government do this? My personal view is that they were using the Browne review as a fall; when Browne recommended unlimited fees, the other Brown could defer a decision, and then set a cap around £7000, boasting that he had listened to hard-working students. This would be a massive PR coup, while lessening the financial burden on the government, and, to some extent, relieving the pressure on university budgets. The Coalition are wise, and they have attempted a similar ruse, capping the fees at £6000 (except in ‘exceptional circumstances’, where £9,000) and lauding the progressive elements that ensure lower earners pay back less now than before. Alternatively, Labour were setting a mess up for the Tories. But this latter view requires even more unbridled cynicism than the former.

As far as Browne’s terms of reference were concerned, that is, to plug the funding gap for universities as efficiently as possible, he has arrived at a valid and pretty good conclusion. However, considered against the socio-political backdrop of the UK – which he was neither asked nor equipped to consider – it is not such a good answer. And the problem won’t go away. Browne has some very odd ideas (the diminishing returns at higher fee rates and real-terms interest on loan repayments being the most glaring) but his basic solution – raising fees – has to be countenanced as part of solving the problem. Raising them above the level the government is prepared to loan to students would be an error, since it would discourage people in general, and people from less financially affluent backgrounds in particular, from attending certain universities such as Oxford, which would be reasonably entitled to charge the highest possible fee.

The Browne review is being widely criticised as bringing about the ‘death’ of education in this country. This is frankly wrong-headed. If anyone is responsible for this (if it is indeed happening) it is Vince Cable, who has chosen to allocate his departmental budget towards subsidy and vocational education rather than universities. If the Browne review was accepted unconditionally, which, incidentally, the government has not done, it would constitute a barrier to widening access to higher education. But if the government reflect upon it – as they are doing – and people who were not adequately represented in the review articulate their views clearly and respectfully, outcome can be, and indeed, has been reached.

The Browne Review was meant to produce a polarised proposition for university funding. There was uproar, but not surprise when it did. It is now up to government and students in conversation together to correct some of Browne’s excesses, so that we retain the tradition of good and fair education in this country. But politically, the previous government sought to land themselves, or their successors in the Browne stuff, because it will be less painful than having shockingly poor univerisities if this current policy continues indefinitely.

This article was first published in the Balliol Bulletin, the news-sheet of the Junior Common Room of Balliol College, Oxford. Republished with kind permission, and with minor stylistic changes. Any views expressed remain the author’s, and are in no way indicative of those of the Balliol JCR, or of Balliol College, or of Oxford University, or of any other person or party.

  1. […] Labour’s actions fare worse. Despite setting up a review clearly loaded, as shown by polarii’s recent article, to recommend higher fees, it refused to engage in discussion of the issue — then […]

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