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.

Indeed.

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