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December 03, 2003
Janet Daley on top-up fees: " education is where we make our profit "

Janet Daley helps me make sense of one of my biggest Education Policy Blind Spots, namely top-up student fees. I favour a total free market in everything and hence in particular in Higher Education, but will topping-up make that much difference? ZZZZZZ. Brian's head hits table. A total free market gets my interest, but re-mixing the mixed economy ... Like I say: ZZZ

This in particular is helpful:

What is at stake is not so much the principle of university education being free to all. In practice, that disappeared long ago. The question is: can higher education continue to be a government monopoly? Is it economically, or politically, viable for the universities to have their financing, employment and admissions arrangements determined by politicians?

The trouble with top-up fees does not lie in the second part of their name tuition fees already exist and are paid by any student (or parent) who earns more than a statutory amount but in the first part. What the new charges would do is "top up" the existing government subsidy which, like almost all blanket subsidy to a monopoly service, is given indiscriminately and spent unaccountably.

Daley provides an example of the latter:

I lost count, during my teaching years, of the ludicrous overspending on materials purchased from suppliers who saw the state-subsidised sector as a cash-cow. (One private art school I knew arranged to hire a photocopier. Having done the deal, the principal was rung by the sales rep the following day to be told that he had mistakenly been quoted the "commercial price" which was lower than the education price. You have to understand, the rep said, that education is where we make our profit.)

And the trouble with top-up fees is that they won't change this:

What is wrong with top-up fees is that they are just that: they will come on top of a subsidy that does not permit universities any serious freedom to rethink their economic or administrative practices. It allows government to interfere in decisions about what proportion of students should be admitted from which backgrounds, the balance between teaching and research, and which courses are fit subjects for study.

I still don't get how top-up fees will make so very little difference, but no doubt I'll grasp it in due course. But surely, if universities get paid, somewhat, according to how many students they attract, that will be something, won't it? What follows, on the other hand, is completely clear:

None of this is the proper business of politicians.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:42 PM
Category: Higher education

Brian, help a Yank... what exactly is a top-up fee? Thanks.

Comment by: Jim on December 3, 2003 04:59 PM

I simply want Oxford and Cambridge (and any other universities that want this) to be largely free of government the way Harvard and Yale are largely free of government, because government has been steadily wrecking them. I think that top up fees give them slightly more control of their finances, and so I support them, but they don't solve the real problem, which is bureaucracy and social engineering (and simple stupidity and ignorance) on the part of government more than money.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on December 3, 2003 09:55 PM


Here's an explanation of top-up fees (sorry it's from the Guardian, Brian):


Comment by: Tim Haas on December 3, 2003 10:35 PM

Wow... that's rather amazing (thanks Tim) -- you mean that's all it costs to attend just about any university in the entire country? I don't know if you could find a school in the U.S. that is that inexpensive. Please excuse my amazement, but I happen to have two kids in college right now. They are both going to public schools -- My son is going to the Community College of Rhode Island -- the most inexpensive entry-level post-secondary education we have over here -- and his tuition for a year would be around 1200 or 1300 pounds. After two years he intends to transfer to the University of Rhode Island, which is where my daughter is currently studying at a cost that's around 3200 pounds. That's tuition and fees, not counting books, etc. (I mention fees because URI's tuition charges for state residents appear lower than that until you get the bill and realize there is a more than seven hundred dollar fee added in for each semester, which would be a bit over 400 pounds... thus an extra 800 pounds for the year.) I

I've looked at those tuition costs as being fairly reasonable -- especially when compared with the costs of attending a private university... I never realized how inexpensive university level education was in the U.K.

Comment by: Jim on December 4, 2003 09:24 PM


It is not very long ago (like about one decade) that the British government actually paid you to go to university, even if your parents were rich. That is, undergraduates were paid a maintenence grant by the government. Only a subsistence level grant, but still....

Comment by: Michael Jennings on December 4, 2003 09:46 PM

And those kind of grants are still typical throughout Europe. There are a lot of 30-year-old students on the Continent ...

Comment by: Tim Haas on December 5, 2003 01:52 PM

Actually the odd thing about the whole business is that, as far as I know, the Universities in England are not compulsory monopolies. That is to say, they weren't nationalised like the coalmines or the railways. Rather, they have all gone along with State subsidies in exchange for the inevitable loss of freedom, because for various reanons it suited them to do so.

The interesting question is whether any of the universities will now take the view that in the light of top-up fees, the remaining subsidy isn't worth the hassle and decide to opt out of State control altogether. There have been rumours that Imperial College may go down that road and I wouldn't be suprised if some of the wealther Oxbridge colleges also do so. Here's hoping ...


Comment by: Julius on December 5, 2003 06:07 PM

I understand that there is serious underfunding in higher education and that something must be done to stop the current situation from esculating. However I am opposed to top-up fees because they are totally indescriminate and they create an elitist situation where only the rich and priveldged students can afford education. As you pointed out we would also encounter a situation where top-up fees would be spent on sectors other then higher education. Would it not be better to impose a system similar to Scotland - where graduates pay extra income tax and only after they start earning money?

Comment by: Paul Holloway on May 5, 2004 12:41 PM

As a mature student and a single parent mother, not only have I heard a great deal regarding top up fees but in some ways I felt that they too were an unjust way for people with talent and ability to be treated. The government seem to want to tax the unfortunate ones when all they want to do is to contribute to the economy instead of bleeding the state dry.

If the government does propose only to charge higher fees to those whose families can afford to send their children to university then in a way, that seems fair. What I do observe on campus though, in defence of the argument for top up fees, are students who rather than utilising their time wisely in academic endeavours, are more concerned with what time the student union bar opens. Dont get me wrong but student life is about adventure and encounters with new people learning new and different things. But that time does pass by and before you know it, you are out there in the big wide world of work. Nothing can prepare you for life out there but the rigorous and punishing schedule at university is a piece of cake compared.

With the advantage of hind sight and a supportive family, I have been able to return to follow an honours degree course. I know I may not be guaranteed a job afterwards but atleast I will have a clear conscience in the knowledge that I utilised the time spent and the money invested wisely. Why shouldnt we contribute to our futures?


Comment by: Gayle Dumont on May 5, 2004 01:54 PM
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