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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004

Paying more for education

LONDON -- Last week the Labour Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair just barely won a vote in the House of Commons on the payment of "top-up" fees at British universities. The government had failed to consult widely in the Labour Party before announcing its policy on fees, and this was one reason for the close result. It was undoubtedly a setback to the government in its efforts to modernize public services.

While the new arrangements, if and when they are finally approved by Parliament, will ensure more funds for the universities as a whole, leading universities will still have inadequate funds to cover the costs of teaching and research.

At the last election the government pledged to do more to improve education at the secondary level and to ensure that some 50 percent of young people in Britain had a university education. It was forced by budgetary realities, however, to recognize that the second aim could not be achieved without a greater contribution from students, or their parents, to the costs of university education over and above the current annual university fees of £1,125.

The government argued that graduates tended to receive higher salaries than those who took up jobs direct from school and, therefore, it was only fair that they should pay for some of the costs of their higher education. Major universities, which for their part wanted to reduce their dependence on the government for their funding, argued that they should be able to charge variable fees depending on the type of course and the university's costs. The government decided to adopt the principle of variable fees, but recognizing the strong opposition to such an arrangement, the Labour Party decided to cap these costs at £3,000 per annum for at least the next five years.

The government also decided to impose an access regulator on the universities whose job will be to ensure that universities are open to all -- especially those from poorer or disadvantaged homes. The government further agreed that payment of fees should be deferred until the graduate was earning at least £15,000 per annum and that any outstanding fees after 25 years would be canceled.

In addition various financial inducements were introduced for poorer students. These concessions were made to try to persuade backbencher members of the Labour Party to support the government's proposals. This effort was only partly successful. The left wing of the party, which attaches more importance to an egalitarian than to a meritocratic society, remains bitterly opposed to variable fees allegedly because they would deter poorer students from taking up the more expensive courses at the top universities and because they are viewed as a step toward establishing a higher education "market."

The main opposition party, the Conservatives, opposed the government's proposals on the grounds that the aim of putting 50 percent of young people through university was misguided. They believed that university funding could best be covered by reducing the number of students at universities and eliminating a lot of "Mickey Mouse" courses such as in media studies and various "way out" subjects. The Conservative Party line was seen by many observers as hypocritical and opportunistic.

The other opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, argued that the costs of the universities should be met out of general taxation and proposed that the highest rate of income tax be raised from the current 40 percent to 50 percent for those earning more than £100,000 per annum. The government responded by arguing that the Liberals had spent the income from this higher tax rate many times over with their various spending proposals.

The universities, while welcoming anything that will reduce their budgetary pressures, think the cap of £3,000 on variable fees will swiftly become the norm and should be increased soon. They will continue to press their case, but the government is in no mood or position to accede to their demands.

Unfortunately, most universities in Britain have inadequate endowments. Even Oxford and Cambridge are grossly underfunded in comparison with, say, Harvard or Yale in the United States. Some institutions will follow the example of the London School of Economics and recruit more and more overseas students who pay full fees. This will inevitably occur, to some extent, at the expense of British students.

Many universities fear that, because of deteriorating facilities and comparatively low salaries, British academics will increasingly seek jobs abroad, especially in the U.S. and thus accelerate the brain drain. Academics also point to the growth of higher education in China and India and the competition from Asia.

If the situation in higher education in Britain looks bad, the position across the channel in other European countries, according to a report in the London Economist dated Jan. 24, does not look any better. Some of the stories in this article about university courses in France, Germany and Italy are astonishing and disturbing.

The Economist concludes that "universities in these countries have become government-owned degree mills whose aim is to get the greatest number of young people in and out for the least money and trouble." According to researchers in Shanghai, of the top 50 universities, all but 15 were American. In Europe, only Oxford and Cambridge made it into the top 10.

Where do Japanese universities stand in the world league? Are Tokyo and Kyoto universities fully competitive? Are they really escaping the suffocating embrace of the education ministry? What about top private universities such as Keio and Waseda? Has Japanese education also suffered from too much egalitarianism? Does Japan have too many graduates of fairly low caliber, e.g., from two-year colleges? Do university graduates automatically justify higher salaries than high school graduates?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they deserve an airing. Any debate on the value of university degrees should not be based just on the monetary value to the graduate. It should also be based on the extent to which a university teaches its students to think for themselves and instills cultural values as well as scientific and technical knowledge.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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