As Sam pointed out on Wednesday, Lord Browne’s report is to be largely welcomed. However, Vince Cable, after initially praising the report, has now raised concerns about what he calls “unlimited fees” and declared that the system needs to be more progressive than it is now. There is a real risk that Browne’s ‘free-market lite’ approach will become a spaghetti soup of regulation.
It is disingenuous to call a system with no cap unlimited when it will be limited by competition. Nobody talks of the unlimited price of shoes, and for good reason. In a free market, universities will be able to charge what people are willing to pay for it and not a penny more. Prices will be driven down by competing providers.
To address Cable progressive concerns is rather easy. Free market reforms would progressive. Currently university education amounts to a transfer of money from present non-graduates to future graduates. Putting the cost burden onto the beneficiaries of higher education is to use the buzzword of the moment “fair”.
There is a real risk that Vince Cable will want to set another cap, higher than the last but no less foolhardy. Fee caps artificially increase the demand for university places, cause students to be less engaged and demanding about their course, and ultimately decrease investment in higher education. This last point is crucial, as universities need more money if they are to be able more offer targeted bursaries to poorer students.
The unions are of course up in arms about any reforms. The student unions are misguidedly trying to protect their members from fee increases, while the teaching unions are concerned that their members might lose their jobs. This is all framed in concern for the poorest, but they are barking up the wrong tree if their concerns are real.
If access to university from poorer sections of society concerns them, they should be looking at the quality of education received prior to university and looking into the vast difference in quality between schools that are run and regulated by the government and those that aren’t. To reduce this gap we need innovation and investment. Vouchers and for-profit schools are the way forward. And for those that don’t go on to university? Well, at least there will be less chance of them being illiterate and innumerate, unable to find someone willing employ them on at the minimum wage.