Wednesday, 17 December 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 12 2003

I'm not sure whether, in the current climate, this will get me fired as a Tribune columnist — but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming round to the idea that top-up fees are not such a bad thing.

My main job, these days, is as a lecturer in City University’s journalism department, and I know from personal experience that higher education needs more money and needs it at once.

My department deservedly has a very good reputation. Most of its graduates get decent jobs when they qualify, and the majority go on to pursue successful careers in journalism — a tribute both to the quality of our students and to the expertise, commitment and hard work of my colleagues.

But, despite its success and reputation, journalism at City is seriously short of cash. The space we occupy is cramped, overcrowded and decrepit; we don’t have enough computers and other equipment; and the salaries of lecturers have been falling behind those of journalists on newspapers and magazines and in the broadcasting media (from among whom we necessarily recruit our teaching staff) for years.

I’m sure the department can survive for some time yet making up for lack of resources with enthusiasm and hard work. But eventually it will reach breaking point — most likely, I reckon, when it becomes impossible to recruit lecturers to replace those that leave or retire or impossible to afford industry-standard technology.

The picture in other university departments is much, much bleaker. After more than a decade of relentless expansion of student numbers with little or no increase in funding, they are at breaking point already. Unless they get an influx of cash, and quick, they will not be able to continue to function.

So what should be done to relieve the university funding crisis? The Tories reckon that the answer is not to find any more money but to slash the number of students in higher education — a position echoed in last week’s Tribune by Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham who is a prominent top-up fees rebel, with his contention that on current trends, “a serious over-supply of graduates ... will be competing for a limited supply of graduate jobs”.

I’m sceptical about this line of argument for two reasons. First, I hold the old-fashioned socialist view that a university education is a good thing in itself, and that a civilised society should aspire to make one available to everyone capable of benefiting from one — which in my opinion means at very least the 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds the government wants in higher education. And second, it’s plain nonsense to think that we are anwhere near the limit of the economy’s ability to provide employment for graduates. There will always, of course, be a demand for plumbers and brickies and cleaners and so forth — but Britain’s only hope for prosperity in the globalised economy is an increasingly educated and skilled workforce.

So the universities need more cash. Where should it come from? General taxation is an option, and the Liberal Democrats have a coherent plan for bailing out higher education with a new top rate of income tax. One problem here, of course, is that overtly raising general taxation is anathema to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: it just won’t happen. Another is that a simple increase in general taxation would not guarantee a continuing income stream to the universities: it would have to be hypothecated to prevent the Treasury diverting it elsewhere at some point in the future when university funding is not the flavour of the month.

A graduate tax (which would also have to be hypothecated) would be less of a problem politically. But it wouldn’t raise any money for years unless it were imposed on everyone who has ever taken a degree — a great idea in principle, though it immediately runs into the insurmountableproblem that the Inland Revenue has no way of identifying which taxpayers are graduates and which are not.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve been driven reluctantly to the conclusion that top-up fees have three serious advantages over the other options that have been floated. First, they are politically feasible: they do not offend against New Labour’s antipathy to overt increases in taxation, and there is no obvious practical obstacle to their implementation. Second, they deliver money at onceto the universities. And third, they will continue to deliver money to the universities regardless of future Treasury whims.

This is not to say that top-up fees are perfect. The government’s current plans might evolve towards allowing universities to charge what they like, which would genuinely create a two-tier higher education system in which elite institutions effectively exclude debt-averse working-class students. As the scheme now stands, however, the debts involved will be small, interest-free and repayable only when graduates are reasonably well-off. I’m sorry, but as a way of getting money into the universities, it’s rather neat.