Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Browne Review: Implications for Scotland

The long-awaited Browne review on higher education funding in England - Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education - was published today, and it makes fascinating reading. There are not really any big surprises, but there is strong confirmation of some proposals that have already been aired in the media for some months now, all set in a well developed framework.

The 'big idea' in the report, if I can put it that way, is to lift the current cap on the fees that universities can charge for undergraduate courses. In fact, it is proposed that the current £3000 cap should be removed all together, so that universities will be free to charge whatever they wish. However, if they choose to charge more than £6000, they will be taxed on the excess, to ensure that institutions are less likely to set fees that cannot be sustainably financed. No up front fees will be required from students and loans will be available to cover both fees and living costs, repayable over 30 years (maximmum), interest being levied at the government's basic rate. repayments are only made when the graduate's income exceeds £21,000 (as against the present threshold of £15,000).

The report places great emphasis on informed student choice and sees competition between institutions as helpful for driving quality improvements in teaching and the student experience more generally. At the same time, the proposed new funding model is expected to raise participation somewhat, in part by offering the same funding conditions for part-time students as full-time ones would enjoy, a long overdue improvement.

At a time of severe public spending cuts - with major announcements due from Government very soon when the spending review is published - something along the lines of the Browne Review was very much to be expected. And it may even be good for many English universities, once fully implemented. What a pity then that Mike Russell, Scotland's education minister, instantly reacted to Browne by restating his vehement opposition to up front fees in Scotland. Apparently various ideas for university funding in Scotland are being considered, but it seems they are not to involve fees. Again, with spending cuts looming on the horizon, it doesn't seem very wise to exclude in advance a major potential source of funding for universities. After all, where else can the money come from?

Of course it's perfectly possible that, as spending cuts start to bite in Scotland, some very serious reforms will be forced on the university sector - such as restructuring degree programmes to shorten them by a year, possibly some institutional mergers or even closures. Such changes might even be desirable under some circumstances, but surely it's not ideal to have them come about under severe financial pressure. They are better considered more carefully, and implemented slowly. So please, let's stop the nonsense of asserting that 'fees have no place in Scotland', and let's have a more sensible debate about university funding, ruling out nothing.

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