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Articles > March, 05, 2007

Fees: Nicholas Barr has got it wrong.

Patrick Ainley
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Professor Nicholas Barr’s assertion that “university is largely free” is largely false. As he explains it, HE is only “free at the point of delivery”. This is like New Labour’s mantra for the National Health Service – which doesn’t mean you don’t pay for your treatment/ education later when your income rises above a poverty level.

In fact, the concession of a partial restatement of derisory maintenance grants was made to conciliate Labour MPs in the cliff-hanger vote on Charles Clarke’s “basically free-market” 2004 Higher Education Act. Clarke (and Nicholas Barr who helped him devise it) was only able to fool his fellow members of the Parliamentary Labour Party by assuring them that students wouldn’t notice increased fees if they were on the never-never. And even then the Act only scraped through with Tory votes.

The fall in applications since (but not in Scotland where the previous system continues) have been disproportionately amongst those most reluctant to entertain debts now averaging £20k on graduation – working-class, some ethnic minority and over-30 year-old would-be students. These are precisely those Barr claims fees help!

To everyone else it was BBO (Bleedingly Blindingly Obvious) that raising fees contradicted widening participation, which has been all but forgotten about since then.

It’s true that, as Barr says, “It’s a payroll deduction, not credit card debt.” But if you are going to pay for HE out of income, why not reintroduce progressive income tax? Then those who earn more pay more, whether they went to HE or not, since HE is a public good.

Instead of which, those whose parents earn the most pay the least as they are often given the money by mummy and daddy who also often invest in housing for them, as the Bliars did for their son at Bristol. Richer students can also afford longer and more expensive courses. They work less and spend more.

This renders transparent the link between money capital and the cultural capital acquired in expensive private schooling and the “better” semi-private state schools needed to gain entry to selectively academic HE. Meanwhile, in this worst of both worlds that combines an elite HE for the few with a mass HE for the many, the majority pay more and more for less and less in increasingly impoverished and chaotic institutions.

When the cap comes off as the government plans in 2010, Vice Chancellors will no longer be able to play their clever game of nearly all charging the same so that there is no market price. Very few will then be able to follow Oxford to the £18,000+ it already needs to charge to cover its annual average undergraduate teaching costs.

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  1. Emily

    To Fergus; You should consider yourself very lucky cause you’re of the few as you can see. University is not about making the right choice, it’s about wether you want to be skilled enough to be in an important position or if you want to just see what you can get without the qualifications which on most cases it’ll land you with a dead end job. Also by the way you sound and saying you’ve only worked two summers and have no financial issues I have to wonder if you’re not getting any financial help yourself.

  2. Emily

    Just a quick comment. As a foreigner not currently living in the UK but hoping to attend Uni there I have to say it’s not fair to generalize all immigrants. Granted that I don’t plan on living there once i’m finished with Uni but if you were to pay attention to how much tuition fees are for international students you would also find that some universities maybe even the one you attend or plan to actually NEED these students because they are actually the ones funding the university with about 9,000 pounds in tuition ONLY,to get on when the the government doesn’t help much. I cannot afford to pay such tuition fees but would gladly be in debt to pay the 3,000 pounds you guys do and finish my education but I know that once that is paid plus living costs and not being allowed to work more than a few hours on a student visa it’s almost impossible for me to actually attend school unless i spent the next two years or so working “my socks off” (quote from someone above) since i wouldn’t be eligible to any loans as i’m not from the UK. I also very much agree with what you’re saying as to how much it costs for you guys but I also know that it’s pretty much the same in most countries except rich ones such as Denmark for example.

  3. Hannah

    In principal I agree that the public should not have to fund what can be essentially an investment for a better paid job in the future. However, as a first year medical student, looking at 6 years of study and hence a large amount of debt ahead, I feel a little cheated by the government. Firstly, doing a course that is twice the length of most courses will result in even more than twice the debt, due to the interest hike from “the same rate as inflation” to around 4.5%, a change conveniently missed out of the glossy leaflets spewed out by “AimHigher”. Secondly, in relation to pmt’s comment, some courses are that time consuming! A regular part time job like the one’s I had whilst in school would definately put a huge amount of pressure on my already stressful workload and would be likely to have a negative effect on my grades. Thirdly, although my mother just lost her job, it happened this financial year so I am not entitled to anything this time around. These are issues faced by thousands of medical students around the country despite the fact that our future carreers will almost certainly be of service to the general public and to the government. I think there should be more equality when it comes to financial issues, or vocational courses that lead to the proffessions (medical, law etc.) will be dominated by the rich middle classes.

  4. pmt

    thanks fergus for tidying that up a little there…is it really that some parents prefer their fancy house or could it be that they have other children to support and that the government do not take dependant children into consideration the way that they do siblings also at university. Therefore putting students whose parents have worked hard, and had several children (i myself am one of seven and find myself getting no bursary and wondering how on earth my parents are expected to finance all of our educations) in a very serious financial predicament. I also applaud you Fergus for having work those toilsome summers, whats wrong with a part-time job through term time? No course is that time consuming! I have worked since the age of 13 and know that if I need money, a few extra shifts is the way to do it – certainly, relying on the government is not much use!

  5. Fergus

    jackie jones: Sorry to hear about your recent circumstances. As regards the cost of higher education, you should have fully looked into it beforehand and made sure you were making the right choice. Pete Nisbet: I think you totally manage to contradict yourself. The country’s economy is strengthend significantly by having citizens who are highly skilled – as you point out yourself with the scenario of the industries. The government contributes (very significantly I might add) to the cost of higher education, as at the period when people benefit most from this kind of education (straight after school), students are not in a position to pay for it themselves. The rest of you, you have a great opportunity. Excluding the minority of natives and migrants who leech off the benefits system, your parents, if they are employed and fall into the category where the student is not eligible for extra grants, then they are earning enough that they have the ability to make choices in life, and enjoy a higher quality of life. If your parents are not contributing then it is simply because their fancy house is more important to them. And, may I add: what’s wrong with students getting jobs and paying part of the way through their course to top-up the student loan? I’ve worked the two summers so far in my degree course, and had no financial problems whatsoever. And to the rest of you, please don’t just copy the wild and vague statements about Scotland and immigrants that you read in The Sun……….

  6. Matt Saunders

    Thankyou very much for your clarification of Mr Barr’s fundamentally flawed arguments

  7. scriberscouse

    Please do not tar all Scots with generalisations, some of us were not lucky enough to take advantage of the system. I am a Scottish student, but alas for me I missed the boat each time university fees were decreased and revised in Scotland. I began my course in 1998 and entered higher education just as the grants had been abolished and student loans became mandatory. I had transfered to an English university, a year before the fees were abolished in Scotland but I would not have qualified as I was an ‘existing’ student. My parents are both on low incomes, but all this entitled me too was the full entitlement for a student loan, and I worked two jobs whilst attending university full-time. My student debt currently stands at £26,000 and although the government falls back on the position that I won’t have to pay a penny back until I’m earning above a certain amount of money; the interest rate on the loans are currently £50 per month on top of my current debt, which translates to roughly £600 a year, however by paying the minimum rate back to the loans company I would barely pay off the interest each year. In my own circumstances I worked out that I would have a salary of 20k to be able to pay off enough money to make a dent, and even then it would take ten years. I am currently in low-paying administrative work and am unable to qualify for a decent mortgage because of the student loan debt. To add to everything else I was then told that for my ‘qualification’ to mean anything I would have to do a post-graduate qualification. I feel for the current students in this money-centric culture and quite honestly feel that I would have been better off not bothering with university as the fees system has effectively closed off more of my opportunities than it has opened.

  8. natasha

    I completely agree with Carrie’s view. It appears that i would be far better off going to univeristy if my parents were unemployed and claiming benefits, then i would be entitled to all the grants and bursaries. It seems unlikely, but in an ideal world the government should look at what families have left over each month to spend. As although my parents earn more than my friend whose mother is unemployed, once they pay all the bills, and are taxed, they evidently have no money left over to fund my university fees. Whereas, my friend is better off then me, she will receive throusands of pounds a year more than me, although in terms of what we deserve i should be granted the same, as her mother most likley has more to spend than my family do on expenditures. Yet, we live in a world where it appears now if you are unemployed you recieve more than those who are employed. Thus, i am attending university to ensure that when i do become employed it will be in a high skilled job, so i do not have to suffer as many do, working ‘their socks’ off, only to gain less than unemployed folk do. And yes, if the government should spend less on immigration and more on education. And why do Scotland not have to pay such high fees for HE and we do??? Are we not all in the same country? Oh and they appear to be receiving more NHS care. Is this were our funds are going? It hardly seems fair.

  9. Amy

    I am in the same position as Carrie. I am not entitled to any non-repayable bursaries or such like and my parents cannot afford to pay for my costs. I know that to persue the career I wish to, I must go to University, so reluctantly I too am landing myself with a huge debt when I graduate. The government claims that the new scheme helps students in my position to achieve their full potential by going into HE and eventually getting a better job at the end of it. Yet by raising the fees they have hindered the same people they want to help! The cost of living whilst at University was bad enough to begin with but to raise the fees as well was ridiculous. And whilst yes I understand the view that the repayment is deducted from pay, so the theory is the student won’t miss it, is in effect the best way possible. But I can’t help but feel it wouldn’t be needed at all if the Government had left well alone.

  10. Carrie

    I am not entitled to any bursary nor are my parents well enough off to pay my university costs. It is people in this position that are the worst off. It is with much reluctance I sign up for the £20,000 debt I am landing myself with. I have dramt of going to university since I was very young; little did I realise it would be of such a great cost. Also, how does it make sense that to go to college, some students (not me granted, again my parents earn too much, yet I’ve worked part time throughout just to get myself through college) get paid £30 (£20 or £10) a week just to attend whereas we now have to pay £3,000 tuition fees on top of everything else when going to university? This makes no sense to me.

  11. Manda Holderness

    I agree with Pete in that the public should not have to pay for university fees of other people when they may be only earning £7000 a year compared to a graduate earning £18000 a year. There is no guarantee that a job will be there at the end of university, which as a prospective student makes me worried about the debt that I will build up over my three year course. I believe that the Government should somehow contribute – perhaps if less money was spent on immigrants and helping new people into the country, they might be able to help the young generation already here.

  12. Pete Nisbet

    I don’t see that the public should have to pay for student’s University fees, because out of all students, very few of their degrees actually benefit the general public. I do think that the students paying for their own fees will help them to realise that it University is something to not take for granted, but because of financial situations, this only applies to poorer students. Industries are directly benefiting from graduates though, and have the money to put towards University fees. Should they not make a contribution to teaching costs at Universities?

  13. dom knox-crawford

    Of course Higher Education is expensive- as a low-income household prospective student its cost is very important to me. I do not agree with the involvement of the government in essentially university matters, whilst exploiting financially weaker students. Yet I cannot conceive a person who has not received the benefits of HE paying an added income tax, even “pro bono publico”. Furthermore, I know that HE is essential for me to eventually get a good job- and, even if it means a deduction of £X from my payroll, i am (although unwillingly) obliged to let that happen.

  14. jackie jones

    There is no doubt that HE is not free. I am in my 40s. I am also qualified as a nurse this was in 1999. the adverts all say that students get a loan to pay for thier fees. But as I have got a diploma in nursing this is not the case. So I have to pay my fees. Granted I get a maintanence loan, and a social work bursary, but once you take off the fees its not a lot to live on when you have rent and the usual household bills plus any debt that mature students are bound to have. To top it all i have been laid off sick with a bad back so now have no other income but the student loan etc. So there is no doubt in my mind that HE is extremely expensive, and had I known that I would not be eligible for the fee loan IO may well not have started the course