Wednesday, February 14, 2007

 

Will we end up paying for tuition fees?

Who will win the argument over tuition fees? Today's big increase in University applicants is certainly good news for their advocates. But should the Lib Dems ditch their commitment to scrap fees in England?

This piece, as so often happens, started off as a reply on another blog. Stephen Tall's is the blog in question which today carries a thought-provoking piece on tuition fees:
"The Labour Government was hypocritical to introduce tuition fees, having explicitly ruled them out in its 1997 manifesto; and even more hypocritical to introduce top-up fees having explicitly ruled them out in its 2001 manifesto. As a result, parents were given less time than they should have been to prepare for their introduction, and many have found it harder to fund their kids through education as a direct result.

"But it is the right policy - indeed, the only policy - which will give our universities any chance of standing on their own two feet. The Lib Dems need to start facing up to that reality."
My big problem with tuition fees is that they discourage the idea of academic pursuit for its own ends. People now seem to see their degrees as purely a means to attain a higher salary. It makes me worry about where the next generation of top scientists, historians, linguists etc. are going to come from...

Maybe that concern is ill-founded. It will be difficult to tell until we've had, say, 10 years of top-up fees. But it still makes me feel... uneasy.

It may seem uncharacteristic for a free-marketeer like myself to be so cautious. Theoretically the marketisation of education should be a good thing. But there's some question as to whether growth and the all-elusive progress necessarily follow from one another where academia is concerned.

My major worry is whether an academic community that is predisposed to worry about the monetary value of things will be as inclined to fund truly independent, undirected research.

So where does that leave us? Well, I know "wait and see" is a crap answer, but that's the best I have at the moment. My expectation is that English tuition fees legislation will eventually be reformed to filter out some of the unintended consequences I've touched on here, but keeping the fees themselves. But it will certainly be interesting to see how the fate of English higher education compares to that in Scotland over the next decade.

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