The UK’s Labour government, in line with its policy of encouraging “public-private partnerships”, is intent upon introducing an element of market competition into the country's health and education sectors. In heath this is to take the form of foundation hospitals, and in higher education variable “top-up” fees.
The name “top-up fees” is used because non-varying tuition fees were introduced by the labour government in its first term as a solution to the problems of universities, but have proven to be insufficient in the money they raise, hence larger fees are necessary to “top-up” what universities receive.
The government intends to replace the current up-front charge of £1,125 a year with a variable charge of up to £3,000 a year, with payment deferred to after students graduates and are earning above £15,000 annually.
The government claims these fees will allow universities to spend more money on educating students and are more just than upfront fees, as poor students at poor quality universities will not have to pay as much as rich students at good universities. Critics point out that this will mean that poor students will receive an even lower quality education as their universities will get even less money, as they cannot afford to pay.
The government also claims it is unjust to fund university education from general taxation as this would mean poor people who have not gone to university paying for the education of rich kids who will earn more than them. The government is clearly living in blissful ignorance that the idea of having a progressive taxation system is that rich people pay most of the taxes.
The government plans to pass the new bill, making it law, in January 2004. However, it is opposed by both the opposition Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties, and some One-Hundred and Forty Labour MPs have signed a petition opposing it, casting doubt upon the bills future. Tony Blair seems intent upon making the bill a leadership issue, and so may resign if it is defeated in the House of Commons.
Critics have accused the Labour rebels of opposing the bill on the grounds that it most upsets middle class swing voters, who do not want to see their children heavily in debt at the age of 21. Labour backbenchers deny this, claiming that the prospect of large debts is most off-putting to students from poorer backgrounds, which will make University even more of a middle class privilege. Furthermore, the National Union of Students highlights the government’s intention of creating a market in higher education, which would be detrimental to the ethic of giving an equal opportunity to all students.
Professor Danny Quah of the London School of Economics has argued that higher education has none of the necessary features to work as a competitive market – start up costs are too high, services are too variable, and customers (students) enter the market with far to little knowledge to make informed choices. Rather, higher education is a natural monopoly, and any attempt to create a market should be viewed with deep suspicion.
Most of the support for tuition fees comes from University Vice-Chancellors, not professors, who have been lobbying governments for the right to charge students for decades. I just hope the government realises these people are not their friends, and if it does what they ask, it will be voted out of office.
I realise I have given a fairly one-sided presentation of the issue, but we are talking about a war between good and evil