Universities - Defending The Defensible

08/09/2017 14:16

August - the political silly season - always produces more heat than light and, over the past few months, universities have attracted a considerable amount of half-baked comment.

Evidence-less claims about 'cartels' have been made and, with a phrase he may well regret, Nick Timothy described the tuition fees system as a 'Ponzi scheme'. This should be juxtaposed against Martin Lewis's view that the fees system is better described as a 'graduate contribution' scheme rather than a student loan system. People must decide who they trust more on this: the creator of Money Saving Expert or the recently defenestrated author of the much-derided 2017 Conservative Party manifesto.

Set against a background of borderline hysteria, it was pleasing to hear a thoughtful and considered speech by Jo Johnson at the Universities UK conference.

The speech contained several challenges for universities, in particular on issues around high pay. But the principle that high pay must be justified is correct - and universities can have no rational fear about proper transparency and accountability.

Jo Johnson also alluded to one of the fundamental problems around debates about university. Some people just have a bizarrely narrow idea of what a university is or does and on that basis they judge that just 'too many' young people are going. They think there should be a cap on student numbers.

To make their concern explicit, some young people should be prevented from going to university even - perhaps especially - if they want to. As long, of course, as it is other people's children!

But universities in the 21st century offer a significantly broader experience than esoteric discussions over sherry in the common room. At the University of Portsmouth each year we graduate nurses, teachers, dental therapists, engineers, architects and pharmacists. We run under-graduate courses in data science and analytics as well as in forensic computing.

In a 21st century economy people with these skills are essential. In a post-Brexit world the UK will only maintain our standard of living by being internationally competitive. This will require an adequate supply of degree-level skills with significant added value in all that we do.

As for student numbers, perhaps 'too many' people from privileged backgrounds do go to university. Barnaby Lenon, head of the Independent Schools Council, seems to think so. But Jo Johnson is right: a numbers cap would hit the most disadvantaged first and hardest.

Let me put it this way: while 65% of 18 year olds in Richmond Park, and Chelsea and Fulham applied to university by January 2017's UCAS deadline, in Portsmouth South the figure was 25%, in Portsmouth North 21% and Havant 17%.

If the economy is to prosper, and if those from disadvantaged backgrounds are to have sufficient stake in society, this gap must be closed.

If there is to be a numbers cap and we are to improve social mobility then some 18 years old from Richmond Park must be stopped from going to university. Or perhaps the view is that only the 'Gold' children from the leafy suburbs and shires are entitled to university while the 'Bronze' children of Havant and Portsmouth should find other things to do. Jo Johnson labels those who hold this kind of view 'pessimists'. He is wrong. They are snobs.

If you believe in opening opportunity to all you don't believe in an artificial cap on the number of young people who can go to university. Equally, if you think that anyone who can benefit from university should be allowed to go, you are committed to a funding system that mixes public subsidy and graduate repayment.

But there remain features of the current scheme that require significant change and we can hope that government is prepared to listen here. With bank base rates at 0.25% charging students 6.1% on their loans simply reinforces the sense of injustice young people feel. It is also wrong that the threshold at which graduates repay their student loans has been frozen at £21000pa. The cost of living increases so the graduate repayment threshold should increase at the same rate.

The replacement of maintenance grants with loans was also a significant injustice. The introduction of loans means that nearly half of the amount owed by the very poorest students has nothing to do with the costs of their education.

The rationale for the current funding system is that, as graduates benefit from university, it is fair that they repay some of the costs. Maintenance loans, rather than grants, increase the amount graduates owe because of their past and because of something over which they have no control - the wealth of their parents. If we want less-advantaged people in our society to have the same university choices as everyone else it is imperative that maintenance grants are re-introduced.

Universities have a role here. Every year the University of Portsmouth spends about £6 million on bursaries and through our hardship fund. But any government that wants to give opportunity to all should not impose the highest debts on graduates from the poorest backgrounds.

If these changes are made the system will be fair, and if universities respond sensitively to legitimate public concerns we will lance the boil that is giving rise to much ill-feeling. We can then focus on judging universities by the proper criteria: do their students have an excellent experience and do their graduates think their investment improved their life chances?