Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes has been in the news this last day or so, calling on universities to drastically limit their intake of privately educated students.
Hughes, who abstained from December’s Commons vote on trebling university tuition fees, has since been appointed as the government’s “access to higher education adviser,” giving him the unenviable task of touring schools and colleges to explain to students why, exactly, paying three times more for their higher education is a Good Thing.
In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, Hughes outlined his vision for future higher education intake:
If you’re really going to be radical about these things, then you have to say ‘access’ means you seek to reflect society in your recruitment policy. And most people in society go to local authority schools, not to private schools, and therefore most people from all universities, including Russell Group universities, should do that. And it doesn’t mean lowering standards.
Increasing access to higher education for those from lower-income backgrounds is a noble aim, and it is to his credit that Hughes is offering more than just lip service to the idea – setting him apart from the Coalition, who have offered few ideas beyond platitudes, and even those ideas they have had may yet be scrapped.
But a university admissions plan that positively discriminates against privately educated students may not be workable. The question is one of striking a balance, between universities that are socially diverse and a system that ensures the best candidates get to university. A top-down imposition of “quotas” on university admissions, as Hughes seems to be advocating, would probably only serve to generate resentment.
Furthermore, it does nothing about those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are put off even from applying for university, simply because they cannot afford it. To ensure diversity in our universities, both issues need to be addressed together.
I have long been an advocate of free higher education (or, for the pendants, “funded from general taxation”). However, if we accept the prevailing idea that higher education should be funded in some other way, I have another suggestion.
First of all, we should raise the cap on tuition fees to a level that reflects the charges currently levied on overseas students. For example, my own university will charge £11,100 for Science and Engineering students in the 2011-12 academic session.
Secondly, we should provide a system of grants that pays in full the fees of those who attended a state secondary school and sixth form. Students who attended either a private secondary school, a private sixth form, or both, would not be eligible for the grants and would be expected to pay the full cost of their higher education. But state-educated students would receive their education for free. I would also envisage a system of means-tested grants for privately educated students, so that those who attended private schools on scholarships (for example) would have part of all of their tuition fee burden subsidised.
Universities would receive the same amount of funding regardless of their intake, but the vast majority of students would not have to pay anything. Essentially, it is a system of largely free education, but ensuring that those who have the ability to pay do so.
Charging privately educated students the same or similar fees currently levied on overseas students is simply a recognition of the fact that they (or their families) have chosen voluntarily to remove themselves from the state education system in our country. But that removal should be complete, not opening up an avenue of “picking and choosing” which parts of state education they want to participate in and which they don’t.
One outstanding question over this system would be what to do with students from elsewhere in the EU, who currently pay the same fees as UK citizens (“overseas” charges, in accordance with European law, apply only to students from outside the EU). Universities could be expected to subsidise the fees of talented EU students, or a central body could be established to do this – though it is important that students from elsewhere within the EU are not “priced out” of our education system.
This system would address the “other side” of the argument that Hughes’ proposals do not reflect: that many students are discouraged from even applying to university because of the expense. Yet it would force those students who can afford to pay for their education to do so, placating those who believe that higher education should come at a cost.