How much of tax payers’ money should be spent helping students at university?

Author: By Lucy Hodges

The National Union of Students has described the cuts as “offensive” but other
commentators are approving. Both the Russell Group of leading research
universities and the 1994 Group of small but elite institutions have
welcomed the report. Certainly, the received wisdom among a number of
respected university finance experts is that higher fees are needed to
ensure that universities are properly funded and to encourage a marketplace.
Raising the fees’ cap to £5,000 a year from the current £3,145 is regarded
as the minimum necessary.

Moreover, turning the clock back on maintenance grants to the pre-2007
situation, when Gordon Brown surprised everyone by announcing more generous
grants, is not regarded by experts as particularly draconian. And
introducing a market interest rate for student loans is also seen as a
sensible way of raising more money for higher education. As it is, students
are able to borrow money extremely cheaply on their student loans.

The reason that those who run Britain’s most prestigious universities favour
this kind of solution is that they don’t want to see cuts to their teaching
or research budgets because such cuts would affect the quality of what goes
on our higher education institutions. They are keen to protect that quality
so that the international prestige of British higher education remains
unaffected and so that the UK is more easily able to escape from recession.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the complaints of the NUS and the new
universities. Public opinion is a powerful force as Tony Blair found to his
cost when the top-up fees legislation was going through Parliament. Students
are politically important, certainly in some constituencies, and they need
to be listened to. The activists among the Liberal Democrats who have the
students’ interests at heart have managed to call the shots and ensure that
the party adopted a policy of scapping fees – until now.

Now their leader, Nick Clegg, is insisting that this policy can?t be
implemented because the public finances are so bad. It is a wise move and
may persuade some voters that the Lib Dems are embracing reality – and that
Clegg is showing some welcome leadership.

These debates are important. Taxpayers need to decide where scarce public
money should be spent. Can we afford to continue to spend so much of it on
helping students at university? For years development experts have pointed
out how much more bang for their buck governments get by spending money on
younger rather than older children.

Primary school education, for example, yields immense benefits to countries
both economically and socially. Secondary and university education brings
rewards too but they are not so impressive. And university education also
gives individuals a great deal of private benefit – they earn more and have
better jobs than people without degrees. How much help do non-graduate
taxpayers want to give such people?

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