Fighting the Browne review means making the case for investment in our Universities

The UCU are entirely correct to say that the recommendations of the Browne review of higher education amount to a privatisation of the British HE sector. Were these recommendations implemented, it would radically change the face of tertiary education in this country –three year degrees could cost as much as £68,000, the market in fees could mean a return to a two-tier HE system, parents may have to take the monstrous decision of choosing which of their children to send to University. The coalition government, whilst seeming to have hysterical concern for the public deficit, appears to have a callous disregard for private, household debt. Far from being distinct, the two issues are intimately interlinked.

The dividing line in this debate is simple and best described with a question – do you believe that students should pay more for their degree? I have argued elsewhere that, in the current context, proposals to charge students more for their education are highly iniquitous. In Britain, students already contribute far more to their education than in the rest of Europe. This comparatively high levy on students has taken its toll on participation rates – in the last ten years, our rates of participation have slipped from third in the list of OECD nations, to fifteenth.

From a moralistic perspective, this is itself alarming. But we need more than a sense of moral outrage to win the fight against the Browne review. From an economic perspective, the statistic is also a cause for concern. To survive as a highly skilled economy, Britain needs highly skilled workers.

Cuts to the teaching budgets of universities of up to 80% will exacerbate this comparative decline in university graduates. As a result of this cut, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that tuition fees will have to rise to £7000 simply to maintain the same levels of investment in teaching as before. Cuts in the provision of public money to Universities necessarily translate into tuition fee hikes.

The million dollar question is whether these cuts are necessary. The Free Education Campaign has recently posted an article on the foremost Left-of-centre blog in Britain, Left Foot Forward, on how investment in higher education yields economic returns. Drawing on evidence from the OECD and the Treasury’s own figures, they show that for every £1 invested in the HE system, the economy expands by £2.60, around £1.30 of which comes back in tax revenues. Of course, Higher Education is also vital for high level research. As the economist, Mick Burke, points out, investment in scientific research also reaps massive rewards for the public finances. In short, investment in HE actually makes the government money. It’s therefore part and parcel of closing the deficit in the public finances.

Vince Cable’s stated reason for embracing the Browne review – the state of the public finances necessitates a greater student contribution – is revealed as nothing but Thatcherite rhetoric. As my friend and colleague in the Free Education Campaign, Fiona Edwards, writes:

Missing from his argument has been the central role higher education could play both in reviving the economy now and in promoting long term prosperity and growth in the future.

We need to make sure this point isn’t also missing from our arguments against Browne’s proposals. Uniting and mobilising the broadest possible alliance to reject the review is hugely important. But to make the strong political alliances we need, we also have to make the robust economic case for greater investment in our Higher Education system.

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