Thursday, 11 November 2010

Reply to Vice-Chancellor Professor David Eastwood

This short article will address the main points made by Vice-Chancellor Professor David Eastwood in his email to University of Birmingham students on October 11th 2010, in which he explained his endorsement of Lord Browne’s Independent Review into Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (Browne Review). This article will respond to Professor Eastwood’s claims that the Browne Review is socially progressive, guarantees quality higher education, and is the ‘only alternative’.

In his email to the Birmingham student body, Professor David Eastwood argued that the Browne Review offers affordable, flexible university education, especially to those who are less well off. However, Lord Browne’s proposal to raise maintenance grants for poor students by just £350, as well as increasing the income students have to earn before starting their repayments from £15,000 to £21,000 a year, does little to offset the massively regressive nature of the rest of the review. Interest rates on student loans are rising from basically zero (equivalent or less than the rate of inflation) to 2.2% above the rate of inflation, higher than the typical mortgage rate. While students from wealthier families will be able to instantly pay off this debt, avoiding any negative effects from the increased interest rate, students who earn over £21,000 but not enough to quickly repay their loans will face continually mounting debts for 30 years following their degrees. Ian Cowie, personal finance editor for The Telegraph, wrote that students who achieve average earnings following their degrees “will not only start their working lives burdened with bigger loans than their parents took out to buy their first homes – but may well end them with even bigger debts.”

Furthermore, a Sutton Trust report (major research institution promoting educational equality) in 2008 highlighted the fact that about 60% of students from poor backgrounds who had decided not to go to university, had been ‘much’ or ‘very much’ influenced by the prospect of mounting debt. This research was carried out in the context of a tuition fee cap of £3,290 with zero real interest. With the proposed tripling of this cap, as well as the increase in interest rates mentioned above, it is hard to see how this will have a ‘progressive’ effect on students from less well off backgrounds, and will instead likely make high-cost university courses “off limits for youngsters from non-privileged homes”, as the Sutton Trust argued in October.

In Professor Eastwood’s email he also writes that student choice will increase under Lord Browne’s proposals, as well as a guarantee of information and teaching quality for all students. It is hard to see how he came to these conclusions considering that the Browne Review has recommended cutting university teaching grants by up to 80% – with only ‘strategically important courses’ (medicine, science and technology etc.) continuing to receive state funding. Arts, humanities and social science courses would suffer a 100% cut in government funding and would have to radically reform the way they are funded, in order to continue to provide quality of service. While Lord Browne has proposed a levy on universities that charge more than £6,000 (in order to deter the institution of excessively high fees), the Institute of Fiscal Studies has concluded that due to the slashing of university grants, universities will have to charge at least £7,000 in order to make up this lack of government funding. Courses that are not deemed ‘strategically important’ will, therefore, be far more expensive than the courses that continue to receive state funding. In fact, The Economist reported at the beginning of November that should these changes be implemented, England will be one of the most expensive countries in the developed world to study. The social effects of this funding proposal could well be that students who do choose to go into the much more expensive social sciences and humanities, will be discouraged from going into lower-earning, socially beneficial careers (such as social workers). Social workers on average earn between £21,000 and £31,000 a year, meaning that they will have to repay these massive loans at a rate of 9% of their income (and possibly the full interest rates – 2.2% above the rate of inflation) – the same as people who go into careers which earn over £100,000 a year. This displays a dangerous disregard for a low-paying but essential sector of our society. The chief executive of the British Academy (the UK’s national academy for Humanities and Social Sciences), Dr. Robin Jackson, has said that this move will “damage academic excellence and quality of life”. Considering the immediate effects to education and the probable long-term social effects, it is difficult to argue that this is an exaggeration.

Professor Eastwood concludes his email by stressing that public expenditure cuts to higher education, alongside a large increase in tuition fees, is “the best way, and perhaps the only way” to maintain the quality of our universities, and to follow the example set by the United States’ superior universities. His reference to the US system is interesting, as implementation of the Browne Review will indeed likely lead Britain down a similar path. Since the 1980s, state funding of US universities has declined, with tuition fees rising much higher than the rate of inflation in order to make up for this. In this time, among developed nations, the US went from being ranked second in terms of ‘percentage of the population with a university education’ to being ranked fifth. Furthermore, the gap has widened between poor and wealthy students in terms of university enrollment. Among the top 146 US universities in 2006, 74% of students came from the wealthiest quarter of the population, while only 3% came from the poorest quarter. Instead of following this model, why couldn’t the UK choose to learn from the Scandinavian countries? These countries’ university performance consistently rank amongst the highest in research and development, access to university education, and social mobility, all at the same time as having zero tuition fees and some of the highest rates of public investment in higher education (see International Handbook of Higher Education – 2006). While Britain shouldn’t necessarily conform to the Scandinavian model, this example is meant to illustrate that there are definitely more, and better, alternatives than Professor Eastwood suggests with his bleak rhetoric about the “dire” future (British debt is actually lower than its historical average).

Contrary to Vice-Chancellor Professor David Eastwood’s conclusions, the Browne Review does not appear to offer the best path for Britain’s higher education system to follow. It is socially regressive, economically unwarranted, and overwhelmingly ideological. In light of this, Professor Eastwood’s view that popular student opposition to the review is a result of ignorance, on their behalf, to its true ‘progressive’ nature is insulting. The future of Britain’s universities under Lord Browne’s proposal, is one which is damaging to the vast majority of students and society as a whole, and because of this we should make it absolutely clear that our Vice-Chancellor is not representing the interests of his students when he supports this review.”

Please help to create an alternative discourse on campus by asking your department to circulate this as an email to all their students.

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