‘Fee rises’: a comment on the power of words

David Morris’s recent blog-post for Wonkhe, ‘TEF and Tuition Fees: myths and reality’, dares to state the blindingly obvious: that the White Paper’s ‘rises’ in higher education tuition fees are barely rises at all. Indeed, if we take the White Paper at its word, it is actually proposing a mechanism to prevent some – maybe even most – universities from increasing fees in line with inflation. So that’s leaving many universities with long-term, real-terms cuts in fees.

For all their boldness in implementing change, it seems to me the Tories have been hopeless at controlling the message. Let’s start with ‘fees’. These are an odd kind of fee, levied via taxation and capped for those who never become higher earners. Indeed it seems remarkable that Labour has managed to market its ‘graduate tax’ as radically different, when its effect would be roughly similar for most graduates. The Australian scheme, which dates back to the 1980s, was originally titled the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’; although admittedly this has since been dropped, perhaps in acknowledgement of its slippery PR-speak. Maybe, that is, ‘fees’ seems closer to the mark than ‘contribution’; however, it’s subtly misleading, and therefore unhelpful.

And then ‘rises’. Here’s a question: if the Coalition government in 2010 had bitten the bullet on indexation of fees to inflation, would we even have a White Paper in 2016? And would we be getting a Teaching Excellence Framework, leading as it will to convoluted and fine-grained distinctions in levels of fees, from 2017? I think not. It seems to me that an edifice of quality demarcation has been created – and, worse still, a myth of poor-quality education has been propagated – in order to justify what should have been built into the system from the outset.

So this, I’d suggest, is what happens when a government loses control of the terms of debate. ‘Fee rises’ require, as justification, elaborate structures of regulation. The costs of erecting these structures, and of universities bending this way and that to satisfy them, will likely outweigh the extra income. But the power of language drives us not only into this expense, but ultimately into the nonsense – for those universities that don’t attain the highest TEF grades – of ‘rises’ that frankly won’t be rises at all.

None of this is to argue that fees do not feel like fees to those paying them. Nor is it to argue that the current system is either fair or ideal. It is manifestly neither of those things. My point is merely that the choice of words, and the toxic politics accreting over years to those words, is placing us in nonsensical positions.

I’m going to write more about the TEF itself once I get some time to read the ‘technical consultation’ document. As a mechanism for distinguishing between universities that are good, and not so good, at educating their students, I think it can work well enough (although The Guardian league tables do a fair enough job already at no cost to the sector). But as a vehicle for distributing resources it is surely flawed. It’s overly complicated, likely at once to confuse applicants and downgrade hard-won reputations. Moreover, it fundamentally departs from the otherwise rigorous student-centred logic of the White Paper, putting the university’s interest in raising revenue ahead of the student’s interest in minimizing debt.

So I’ll end with a prediction: I don’t think the proposed equation of TEF gradings and ‘fee increases’ will last, if indeed this proposal is ever implemented in the first place. The TEF will survive and ‘fee rises’ will happen, but they will be decoupled. Someone in BIS, one day, will wake up and acknowledge that what’s currently proposed is mad. Surely they will.

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