Could Covid sound the death knell for tuition fees?

The crisis has accelerated trends – and made this the perfect moment to reverse the marketisation of HE

First, a confession.

I oversee a private HE provider – Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design in London. Some will argue that my position bars me from holding forth on public sector funding. However, many of the issues outlined below are ones with which we in the private sector also wrestle. What’s more, equity, opportunity and affordability are important, regardless of the status of the provider. Education is, after all, something in which we all believe.

As with most big crises, Covid has been a powerful trend accelerator. We’ve seen the migration of trade from physical to online shops and home delivery and the advancement of the virtual from Zoom meetings to the provision of course content online. Precisely where this has taken us in higher education we will probably only find out for sure when the autumn intake of new students arrives on British campuses.

One thing all of us in HE have seen is the increasingly transactional nature of the relationship as perceived by the students themselves. Today’s students have been put into a frame of mind which says, “I pay you this to give me a degree.” Their dissatisfaction with the closure of campuses during the pandemic has accelerated this trend which, I believe, is an inevitable outcome of the tuition fee system, itself an extension of neo- liberal ideology into areas of society where it should not be so extended.

Government must be persuaded that tuition fees need to be scrapped

It is a trend which must be reversed if the concept of education as something of value, in and of itself, is to be protected. In short, government must be persuaded that tuition fees need to be scrapped.

The great American philosopher Michael Sandel, author of Justice and What Money Can’t Buy put it like this: “Markets are useful instruments for organizing productive activity. But unless we want to let the market rewrite the norms that govern social institutions, we need a public debate about the moral limits of markets.”

Universities are precisely the kind of social institutions Sandel describes, but how do we reverse the marketisation of the sector which has so damaged it?

Going back to the good old days of grants is neither practical nor desirable. A tiny number of students gaining entry to a tiny number of institutions inevitably results in exclusion for too many. Many today would disagree with Tony Blair’s vision of seeing 50% of school leavers going to university, but nor would they promote a return to it being the preserve of the privileged few. As is so often the case, the desired ground is somewhere in the middle.

It makes no sense for universities to be at the mercy of the market when it comes to borrowing

Universities could be properly funded, de-marketed if you will, in three ways:

Firstly, by a hypothecated tax, specifically targeted towards the tertiary and lifelong learning sector. This would require strong public messaging explaining the benefits of such an idea – Britain needs educated people to keep up in an ever more claustrophobic global economy. Parents need no longer worry that their children will be saddled with a loan for life which they will never pay off and which will preclude them from being able to afford to buy their own home. Most importantly perhaps, this tax would also fund (and greatly expand) the government’s plans for Lifelong Learning, making sure that everyone, not just university students, felt able to benefit from the money raised as well as contribute to it.

Secondly, the regulations around how much universities can borrow and for what should be liberalised. As independent organisations they should be trusted to know what they need and how it will be paid back over time.

Thirdly, it makes no sense for universities to be at the mercy of the market when it comes to such borrowing, any more than it does for students and their loans. A central education bank, underwritten by government and undercutting the market would give universities the confidence to borrow what they actually need to invest in facilities such as improved labs and other technologies.

Trust is fundamental to the overall social contract of higher education

These moves would help to redraw the social contract between students, universities and the public, and would go a long way towards reducing the anger a lot of parents and students undoubtedly feel toward some institutions for their often slow and uninspiring response to the pandemic. To be fair, who can blame them? Undergraduate degrees are no longer a guarantee of a decent job, let alone a career. All the risk lies with the student because of the loan system, which can make them anxious and desperate. Anecdotal evidence and some research suggest increased pressure on lecturers to award higher grades than merited, and the bullying of staff who fail to accede to demands (see Bullying in the academy: understanding the student bully).

Trust is fundamental to the overall social contract of higher education; trust that staff are diligent, learned and committed to passing on what they know as well as honestly grading work submitted. Trust that the student is at university on merit and will be rewarded in line with their labours and abilities. Trust from society that funding the entire process will be based on merit and of benefit to all. All of these elements of trust are at serious risk and, should they disappear completely, what will universities be for?

We know that various institutions are already in peril. If the sector is going to need large dollops of government funding to ensure survival, why not turn a crisis into an opportunity and use this very moment to reverse the tuition fees disaster, and restore the concept of higher education as a centrally-funded, public good?


Nick Isles is CEO of Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, and a writer, researcher and consultant who has worked with universities including Lancaster, Southampton, UEA, Gloucestershire and Aberdeen.

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