Sunday, 24 October 2010

To Cap Or Not To Cap?

Today both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have made noises to the effect that there will be some kind of cap placed on tuition fees, contrary to the advice given in the Browne Report earlier this month. It is initially thought this cap could be around £12,000, the level at which the Government would've started penalising universities anyway.

A victory for students? I'm not sure.

Removing the cap at the current level to allow for a reduction in funding to universities is an unpopular decision. It also looks likely to deter students from going into higher education. Now to some people this isn't completely a bad thing: the country is over-stretched as it is with graduates who offer little practical application to society once they leave university. However, the merits of individual courses aren't the issue here. What I'm wondering at the moment is whether we should be raising the cap to £12,000 instead of scrapping it altogether.

I know removing the cap is an unpopular idea but tripling it could be as costly to students. Isn't it likely that universities, eager to recoup their losses from their battering in the Spending Review, will raise their fees as a unit? All of a sudden even an education at a below-par institution could cost a fortune.

Of course, we expect there to be a lot of auditing of universities to ensure they are worth the fees they are charging. But how reliable are these procedures going to be? Considering the Government's attitude towards quangos isn't it likely that surveillance of fees will pass straight into the pocket of some harassed junior minister already struggling to deal with everything else thrown at his department?

I don't think the cap should be moved from its current level. Or, if it is, it should just be an upward nudge of perhaps £1000. However, if the cap is removed and a marketplace is created in the higher education sector then students will have the opportunity to choose. There will still be some universities who keep their fees relatively low to attract the less well-off. Equally, there will be competition between the prestigious universities: they will have to battle each other for their students and this process should demonstrate value for money.

I'm a little undecided here. I don't want the cap raised, I'd prefer it not to be moved at all. But if it must move I'd prefer it to be removed completely. What Clegg and Cable are doing in their pacification of disgruntled Lib Dems might just make the situation worse.

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