Be sure to start with Part I.In this post, I’d like to try to describe how I as an American understand the changes to the funding model for higher education in the UK. I’m going to try to be as accurate as I can be, but undoubtedly there will be things that I muddle because of something subtle that I don’t realize I don’t understand. Hopefully people will correct me if that happens or ask questions if something isn’t clear. I don’t know that I’ll do any worse job than some members of the media or some politicians, as I keep getting the feeling that they don’t know what’s going on when it comes to HE funding either. I did spend a couple hours listening to the House of Lords debate the changes last night, and it was nice to hear the perspective of some lords who have been leaders of English universities speak. I was pleased to hear that I shared most of their opinions on the matter, so I must not be completely misunderstanding things.
In Part I, I mentioned how the Browne report looked to remove the cap on tuition fees for English universities to allow market pressures to come to bear on universities. Well, the government has decided that they like that idea, except they don’t like the political downside to having no cap at all (going from just over Â£3,000/year in 2010 to no cap at all in 2012 would be a shock to the system), so instead they’ve decided to keep a cap but set it at Â£9,000/year! Nominally the cap is set at Â£6,000/year, but universities will be able to charge up to Â£9,000/year provided they can document that they are taking actions to provide access to their universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (read: scholarships for poor students). Of course, what the government has published to date about the review process for charging the higher tuition fees suggests that almost any English university will be able to charge their students Â£9,000/year from 2012. In Part I, I discussed the serious issue that having a cap creates. In short, universities will feel inferior if they charge less than the cap (Leeds Metropolitan spent one year at Â£2,000 when the cap was set at Â£3,000 but then matched everyone else), so every student desiring to go to university in England from 2012 is basically looking at paying back Â£27,000 in tuition fees after they graduate and begin earning at least Â£21,000/year. In my opinion, this completely fails to create the “market” that the Browne report envisioned. (Lord Browne’s uncomfortable endorsement of the government’s plans last night suggests that he likely shares this view to some extent.) Since no university will offer lower tuition fees, students won’t be able to vote with their wallets by choosing a university that meets their needs, thereby withdrawing funding from universities that don’t provide the education students are seeking.
Before addressing how the cost to students of a university degree in England is changing in more detail, we need to look at changes in government funding. At present, the government basically allocates a set amount of money to English universities each year based on the number of students enrolled in the various courses (majors in US HE speak). Medicine and dentistry (which are not taken as something one studies only after obtaining a traditional undergraduate degree here) are funded at the highest level, as they are the most expensive. The next price group consists of the laboratory sciences and engineering. The third group contains mathematics, computer science, modern languages, psychology, and several other areas. The final group is business, humanities, and social sciences. The Browne report suggested that because of the high cost and strategic importance to the nation of the first two price groups, the government continue to subsidize students studying those courses. As the cost of the other courses is lower and they have less strategic value, the report suggested significant reductions in the teaching grant for those subjects. (The report does suggest that some courses in the third group might continue to be funded. One would imagine this was meant to be computer science and mathematics, given the report’s emphasis on the importance of the STEM disciplines.) I haven’t read the report in its entirety, but I don’t see any indication that the report suggests “significant reductions” should mean “eliminate all government funding for”.
From what I understand of Georgia’s HE funding model, the existing English model isn’t too far off. Georgia Tech is supposed to get an increased amount of state funding because of the large number of credit hours taught in engineering and laboratory science, as these are very expensive areas to teach. Colleges and universities focusing on other disciplines receive less funding per credit hour. Well, the government has decided to take the Browne report’s recommendations for government HE financing to the extreme. They are eliminating the teaching grant to universities for all courses in the third and fourth price groups. From what I’ve seen, there’s not even been a move to save funding for some of the subjects (mathematics, anyone?) that the report hinted might deserve funding at existing levels. The result? The government is eliminating eighty percent (yes eight zero percent) of the overall teaching grant provided to English universities. (My institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science, will therefore lose its entire teaching grant, yet remain subject to government regulation as a public university.) In its place, will be the Â£9,000 per student per year tuition fees. My reading of the Browne report suggests that universities should consider basing tuition fees on the courses students are reading (majors they’re studying). Of course, that was based on there being no cap in place, so students could make choices based on many factors. (Sociology is less expensive to read than civil engineering, but I could expect a career with higher wages if I graduate in civil engineering. Let me run a cost-benefit analysis.) You can agree or disagree with the Browne report’s suggestion. (I have mixed feelings. I think at the graduate level, differential tuition to offset the costs of expensive programs makes sense. At the undergraduate level, it’s harder to support in the US model. However, in the UK model transferring between universities or even changing courses within a university is much harder than transferring or changing majors in the US, so the cost-benefit analysis is much easier to do here than in the US system.) Effectively, the government seems to have decided to adopt the parts of the Browne report that meshed with their primary goal (reducing the deficit) without actually paying attention to making overall reforms to HE financing in England.
As a mathematician, I find it offensive that teaching funding is being withdrawn from the third and fourth price groups. I don’t find this offensive because mathematics is in those groups. Honestly, mathematics is a pretty cheap subject to teach (we don’t need laboratories or field work, just chalkboards and maybe a computer lab equipped with Mathematica, Maple, or MATLAB), and I would still be upset even if mathematics were included in the protected price groups. I am offended because what modern society should send the message that there is no value in the arts, humanities, and social sciences? I don’t see any other way to interpret the government’s decision to totally eliminate the teaching grant for these subjects. Reducing is one thing, but eliminating is another entirely. The financial mess the UK is in might have been mitigated if it had more economists providing advice to the government (and fewer off trying to collect big bonuses). Is there no need for individuals trained as social workers to help the poor and disadvantaged? I guess England’s contributions to culture over the past centuries should be discounted, too, as the government doesn’t feel it’s worth supporting those who desire to make contributions in the future. Yes, the STEM disciplines have clear linkages to economic development, and I don’t know anyone who’s arguing that STEM degrees shouldn’t be more heavily subsidized. However, a truly great society (a phrase we keep hearing bandied about as the government implements austerity measures) needs arts, culture, humanists, and even mathematicians to reach its potential. The coalition government has taken a step that implies it disagrees with that principle, and unfortunately few outside the HE sector seem to be disagreeing publicly.
Future posts will explore the direct costs to students (including describing the repayment mechanism), the protests/riots and “occupations”, why students feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats, more precise comparisons to the costs of HE in the US (including some currency conversions), and my opinions on the whole matter.