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Independent Head backs “ingenious” fourth way on university tuition fees December 17, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Magazines.
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A steep rise in tuition fees will go ahead after the coalition government won a crucial vote in the House of Lords on Tuesday night, despite criticism from many quarters.
Read more from AFP here.

Many will argue that it is high time that Higher Education was debated more meaningfully in the UK: some 400,000 teenagers a year are now going to university –  but more than 140,000 others want to, have the grades and the cash to, but the places are not available.

The spring 2011 issue of Conference and Common Room, the magazine for the leading independent schools in the UK, carries a great opinion piece on university funding by Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of the King’s School, Chester and member of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee.

Chris speaks of the bygone days of free university tuition, a system which was affordable for the government as it was based on a predicted 10 percent of school-leavers chosing higher education. Unfortunately, “that sounds to today’s teenagers like a lost paradise, as in fact it is.”

No western economy, let alone one as indebted as the UK, can afford to fund the education and accommodation of close-on half its youngsters, for, as is often forgotten, university is essentially boarding education, for which parents are paying an eye-watering £30K + per annum at the independent secondary level.

Those of us who work in secondary education may not have noticed the battering that Higher Education has had over the last decade. If we think times have been tough, it’s worth sparing universities a thought: ill-judged targets (just where did 50% (school-leavers in higher-education) come from?); no long-term thought about funding; fines for exceeding targets.

Taxing higher education; the state footing the bill; or privatising the sector – they were the three solutions explored by Lord Browne, who wrote the report commissioned by the last government and accepted by this one as the basis for its controversial policy on tuition fees.

However, Chris – with a little help from the National Union of Students – has found a fourth, ingenious solution:

Why not free funding from government control, set up an independent fund to which graduates would contribute for a fixed term and on a fixed scale? A tax in some ways, but time-limited and, attractively, not going to the Treasury but to a dedicated trust. It’s a scheme which has been financially modelled by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, and it works pretty well.

It would cost graduates who do not go on to be high earners much less than the proposed tax – and a great deal less than tuition fees – and high earners no more. It saves money by cutting out the middlemen – the tax collectors and the government. And it is the clever brainchild of the National Union of Students, no less.

For the NUS to have commissioned the plan is in itself commendable – as they say, ‘unmanageable levels of debt…are bad for both the borrower and the lender’ – but for the plan to be as sensible as it is makes it worthy of consideration. Perhaps their ingenuity should not surprise us.

The full text from Chris’s article will be found in the spring 2011 issue of Conference & Common Room, which will be landing on Headmaster’s desks in early January. Two-year subscriptions for the magazine are available for £25, including postage and packing.

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