Who Should Decide Tuition Fees?

Posted on March 18, 2010

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Recently the Association of Graduate Recruiters produced a manifesto with a number of proposals for improvements to Higher Education (Press release here). Amongst these was a call for the end of government targets to send 50% of people to university, to include employability skills in all university courses and tax breaks for employers of new graduates.

On the face of it I agree with many of these points and can at least understand some of the ones I disapprove of. For example, I agree with the removal of the 50% targets as I have thought for a while that universities seem to put more value on the quantity of students recruited rather than the quality of students recruited. (My reasons for this are long and numerous and are unrelated to the rest of this post so I won’t go into them now.)

However, one of the other proposals is ‘a phased removal of the cap on student tuition fees by 2020’ with ‘a national savings scheme to help families prepare for the cost of higher education’. This seems an odd choice for an organisation that represents graduate recruiters, what do they gain from higher tuition fees? The only reason I can think of would be to offset the tax breaks for new graduate employers or to cover increased costs from other proposals.

How suggested improvements should be paid for isn’t for the suggesting body to decide unless the cuts directly affect them. For example, if the NHS wanted to cut the amount spent on certain drugs in order to hire more staff then that’s a valid suggestion for them to make. If the NHS wanted to cut the amount spent on police wages in order to hire more staff then they’re overstepping what I see as a boundary of what would be reasonable for them to suggest.

The cost of running a university are extraordinarily high and universities are well within their rights to suggest or campaign for the removal or raising of the cap on tuition fees if they feel this is in their best interests. Conversely, the National Union of Students is entitled to campaign for the removal of top-up tuition fees or any other topic that affects students. Graduate employers, on the other hand, have little to do with the running or funding of a university (obviously some employers have closer links than others to universities and may be more involved) and should not comment on whether students should pay more to attend university.

Taking this further, I believe it is part of a trend towards commercialising academia. Although I have no real evidence, anecdotes I’ve heard suggest that departments are struggling to get funding for research that may not have a direct commercial use or product at the end of a relatively short time period. While there are many commercial companies that emerge from research I believe that generally research should come first and practical uses should follow. If we only ever research minor changes to existing technologies then the progress of science and technology will slow to a crawl. As much as I like to ridicule DARPA, at least they fund research into some of the more unusual ideas people have.

As I said at the start, I agree with many of the points in the AGR manifesto and can see why the quality and quantity of graduates, the level of education at universities and courses affects employees and why they would want them improved. However, the cost to the students of a university education should be left to the universities, students and government to work out.

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