The Telegraph reports that the university tuition fees system is in a mess. The aim was not just to raise money but to create a market in higher education. However, constant state interference has stopped this happening. Now, another Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, is to have a crack at reform but he risks compounding past mistakes.
A review of university finance to be published today, but widely trailed at the weekend, will order universities to slash fees in some courses considered less likely to boost their careers. These might include the arts and social sciences. In addition, institutions will be told to offer more two-year degrees, increase the number of sandwich courses and encourage undergraduates to take the cheaper option of living at home and studying locally.
Some of these ideas are good, not least trying to enhance the popularity of two-year degree courses which are already available but not widely taken up. What we must question is whether the answer to the difficulties confronting the sector and its future students is more government interference.
The political reasoning, of course, is to appeal to younger voters by bringing down the cost of fees and interest charges. But the result will be additional complexity, financial difficulties for universities and another generation of disgruntled graduates burdened with debts that do not reflect the market value of their education.
It might be a better career choice to read an arts subject at Oxford than sciences at a former polytechnic; yet the Government thinks the former should be cheaper. Ideally a different price would apply for every course at every institution. Good universities will charge more, and expand. Good courses at poorer institutions will thrive. Courses that cost more than they benefit will fold, and price will more properly reflect value.
We know from past experience that this judicious mix cannot be achieved by the state but only by the market. Governments should no more fix prices in higher education than in the energy sector. That is a Labour approach, not a Conservative one.
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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