Tuition Fees: A Dog’s Breakfast

There has been much debate in the media recently about the Coalition’s position on tuition fees, and I was prompted to Tweet: “Tuition Fees? Let’s bring back State Scholarships!  I won one of the last ones in 1962”.
That dates me a bit.  State Scholarships were phased out in 1963, so far as I remember.  I was very proud at the time to have been awarded one, though I haven’t thought of it for quite a while.
So far as I can work out, the Coalition is proposing a maximum annual student tuition fee of £6000.  Or maybe £9000.  And if a University wants to exceed the first £6000 threshold, it has to agree to offer the third year free to poor students.  Imagine the annual rows and protests as each year we renegotiate the fee thresholds, and adjust the “poorer students” criteria.
I recognise of course the delicate inter-party sensibilities and negotiations within the Coalition over this issue.  I feel for the embarrassment of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable and Simon Hughes as they leave the happy insouciance of opposition, where anything can be promised, and move on to the responsibilities of government, where promises have to be paid for, and spending commitments weighed against each other, and against the budget.
Nonetheless, we have ended up with a Horse Designed by a Committee, or (to mix metaphors) a Dog’s Breakfast.
What should we have done?  First of all, we should not be interfering in the pricing of education.  If academic institutions are to survive largely on fees, they must be free to set those fees.  We don’t set maximum prices for houses or haberdashery, for cars or cornflakes, so why for education?  This detailed price setting suggests an almost Soviet mindset.  We need not fear that prices would escalate indefinitely in a free market.  Limits would be set by the market’s ability to pay, and by competition.  Equally, competition and the desire to justify fees would lead to improvements in quality and relevance, to the benefit of universities, students and the national economy.  We might find that rather fewer students went to university (which may be a good thing) and we should certainly get radically reduced drop-out rates.
So will the economy suffer if poor but bright students are excluded from further education by the price?  Indeed it will, so we must have a mechanism to fund such students.  The funding must be based both on means and on academic performance.  And it must be paid by the tax-payer, not the universities.
There is a tendency to urge some kind of “positive discrimination” on admissions, so as to set lower standards for pupils from poor backgrounds.  This is based on the palpably absurd Socialist belief that all students are created equal, so that if one has poorer A Levels than another, that must be the result of “deprivation”, not ability.  And bizarrely the preponderance of private school pupils at our best universities is adduced as evidence to support this view.
It does no such thing.  I suggest two reasons why disproportionate numbers of private school pupils get to Oxbridge.  First, parents who can afford private schools are mostly wealthy.  Generally, not always, those who have been successful in their lives and careers tend to be well-educated and intelligent, and therefore (generally, not always) they tend to have bright kids.  Intelligence is a heritable trait.
Secondly, private schools (on the whole) deliver a better education.  This in turn is not so much about money and class-sizes as the retention of traditional values, and their reluctance to adopt the modish educational theories that have tainted the public sector and the teaching unions.  If politicians are uncomfortable with this plain fact, they should improve state schools, not discriminate against private schools.
We used to have a way for children from poorer homes to achieve.  It was called grammar schools.  And if I may cite my own case, I went to state infant and junior schools (my parents could not have afforded private education), then to King Edward VI Grammar School (Southampton), then on to Cambridge.  Unfortunately the same modish theories have decimated the grammar schools, despite clear evidence that the selective system benefited both those who went to selective schools and those who went to secondary moderns.  (I hate the term “failed the 11 Plus”.  I prefer to say: “Went to the most suitable school for their ability range”).
We should listen to Ann Widdecombe, and Graham Brady, and get back into the grammar schools business.  And we should rigorously apply the same academic standards to all pupils regardless of background.

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2 Responses to Tuition Fees: A Dog’s Breakfast

  1. An excellent blog post, which will no doubt horrify any liberals or socialists who read it. But, why? Well, Roger is simply telling the truth and emphasising how our education system should adapt – and why it continues to fail school children. In principle, I agree that the return of grammar schools would also be a very positive move, along with the return of traditional values to teaching (I would include Christian values and good discipline). “Positive discrimination” is a flawed and very damaging concept indeed. In education (for example), it can create unrealistic expectations for students. Surely, that is the real cruelty and unfairness? Instead, all educational establishments need to implement a rigorous set of academic standards – regardless of background (exactly as Roger suggests). At the end of the day, record numbers of students at universities, is not a positive indicator for a country’s society – if education standards are low; and there are simply not enough jobs for graduates (as in this country).

  2. Derek says:

    Indeed an excellent post, Roger. If only the government could see the sense in your comments. Julian Hawksworth’s comments (above) speak the truth. It is a tragedy for this country that we have wasted so much time on a flawed system, instead of returning to the grammar schools that served us so well.

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