Give our universities freedom to follow the American way

28 Nov 2007

This article by Brian Montetih was published in The Scotsman on 27th November

IN THIS paper last week, Andrew Cubie called for a root-and-branch review of higher education funding, but the First Minister, Alex Salmond, has already rejected the appeal, almost without drawing breath.

Only last month, the principal of St Andrews University, Brian Lang, floated the sacrilegious idea of some universities becoming less dependable, rather than more dependable, on the state. So dumbfounded were Scotland’s collectivist cognoscenti that the response was silence.

The Labour/Lib Dem Executives threw money at Scottish universities but could never find enough that would provide the same level of resources as in England, once top-up tuition fees of as much as Ł3,000 per student per year were allowed there. When the limit on those fees is lifted, English universities will launch themselves into a financial stratosphere while Scottish universities continue bouncing on a publicly funded trampoline - their funding going up and down but never, ever, high enough.

The fact is that, even if the universities were granted all the money they asked Alex Salmond for this year, such is the growth of private resources in England that they would still have to go back and ask for more in another three years. The tuition-fee genie is out of the bottle and, like the NHS, our universities are set on a course where no amount of public money will ever be enough to satisfy the demands of the real world.

In the United States, it is different. They do not make the mistake of trying to offer a one-size-fits-all system. Universities are encouraged to find their own level and excel at that. The top universities, often considered to be the Ivy League institutions but actually including excellent colleges across the continent, raise their funding from endowments and charitable donations from graduates - as well as the tuition fees that students (or really their parents) pay each year.

Rather than being more exclusive, these colleges go out of their way to help students from poor backgrounds gain entry free of charge or with financial help. If a student can show he or she has the ability or potential, there are more than adequate funds to see them through college. Having done so and made something of their education, the graduates respond by supporting the colleges with their donations once they have funds.
It is an admirable system that encourages social mobility and personal responsibility, and has the advantage of not placing the financial burden on the taxes of the low-paid that do not go to university - the system that we use in Britain.

If we designed a system of higher education, would we not want it to be able to attract the best lecturers, researchers and professors in the world, so that its standard of teaching and research was in the premier league - rather than lose them to other countries and suffer a diminishing reputation? Would we not want those graduates that benefit financially from the advantages that university education brings to contribute towards a greater share of the costs than those that do not? Would we not want to ensure equality of opportunity so that potential students from low-income families were not discouraged by the cost of study? These are fairly straightforward questions and my answer to all of them would be yes.

In Scotland, however, we conduct the debate as if the only question that matters is the last one - the worry about student debt. This is a red herring. If financial support for fees is provided to those with low incomes, and if the repayment of student loans is triggered at a rate at or above average earnings, then debt versus potential earnings becomes a calculation where students can decide if it is worth the investment.

The reason for this distraction is simple: students have votes, and institutions do not. Student finance is given priority while universities are an afterthought.

What, then, can be done? The first thing is to realise that, in Scotland, the flat-rate tuition fee, introduced by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in 1997, has never been abolished. It is still there, charged to every British student - all that changed north of the Border was that Scottish domiciled students have their fees paid for by the public purse through the Student Awards Agency. The realisation that tuition fees have not been abolished is important because it is, therefore, not a large step to allow those universities that so desire - say, St Andrews for starters, then later, maybe, Edinburgh and Aberdeen - to charge top-up fees for some or all of their courses.

In agreeing that such institutions rely less on state support by drawing in more private funding, politicians could taper off their public subsidy and transfer it to those universities that remained fully publicly funded, thus alleviating some of their funding difficulties. They could also insist that the more independent universities establish large and generous bursaries and endowments so that no poor student would be excluded from study.

Such a quid pro quo would be worth paying, for the private income would ultimately be greater than the lost public funding; it would mean greater institutional independence, and universities are, by their very nature, full of people passionately committed to the betterment of others. Bursaries would undoubtedly spring up and I’ve no doubt would be generously supported by big corporations and, later, graduates themselves. Different universities should cater for different demands, some looking to mainly Scottish students, some to the wider British market and a few to the international markets, with the cream of Scots going there too. This final group could make less call on state funds, leaving more for those that choose to stay in the public system.

If the SNP’s Scottish Government is not prepared to fund higher education with Ł168 million extra per year, and to fund further, higher increases in three years’ time, then it should admit as much and agree to let some universities go their own way, free to compete with the best in England and North America.

• Brian Monteith is research director of the Policy Institute and an adviser to www.thinkscotland.org