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'Time for hard choices' warns Universities UK President 

Universities UK Media Release, September 29, 2003:

Professor Ivor Crewe, President of Universities UK, gave the following speech at a Universities UK fringe meeting at the Highcliff Marriott Hotel at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth on September 29 (text below).

"Good evening, and Iím delighted to see that so many of you have joined us tonight. I want to start by thanking the Secretary of State and Melanie Phillips for agreeing to join us for this debate.

"I became President of Universities UK only recently and I could hardly have taken on this role at a more exciting or critical time. My own academic career has been in the field of British politics so itís a double pleasure to be so closely involved in what is surely one of the big political issues of the moment.

"For those of us who work in the universities there is a considerable relief Ė and appreciation Ė that at last we have a Government which recognises the funding needs of our universities, is thinking long-term and strategically, and is prepared to take the formidable challenge of university funding head on.

"But I also recognise that because higher education is now at the heart of a big political tussle, there is a danger that the arguments may become clouded by ideology and emotion. 

"When Alan Johnson spoke to vice-chancellors a few weeks ago he said some of these issues needed hard thinking and wet towels on the head. Heís right: the issues are complex and itís the details in the proposals that matter. Iím not naÔve enough to think that through sheer rhetorical force I am going to convince those of you who are implacably opposed to university fees that the Governmentís Graduate Contribution Scheme is a great idea. But I do want to take this opportunity to tell you why Universities UK, representing the countryís Vice-Chancellors, has chosen to support the Governmentís proposals.

"The starting point is the year-on-year cuts in university funding that began in the 1980s under the Conservatives and only came to a halt last year. Between 1989 and 2002 our universities endured cuts in funding of 37% while student numbers grew by 94% over the same period. We simply canít go on like this, and while I would defend the quality of what our universities currently offer, there is a real risk that the UK could lose its international record for excellence in higher education. 

"The figures Iíve just quoted are on the back of the flyer advertising this event. Theyíre also on the backdrop behind me. They tell a powerful story. "96% of students think going to university is worthwhile". Thatís from this year's poll conducted by MORI for UNITEís Student Living Report, which also said that 87% of students think the money they are spending on their higher education is a good investment.

"Those students are right. The latest figures, published this week by the OECD, show that UK graduates, aged between 30 and 44 earn on average 61% more than those in the same age group who left school with A-levels or equivalent and didn't go to university. The private rate of return to the graduate is 17% - the highest among the 10 countries for which comparable data are available. Going to university is a good personal and private investment for the student. 

"So there are considerable financial rewards for those who can get through the university door. But there are also other benefits - in terms of social mobility, life choices, security and health for example Ė and these benefits are passed on to their own children. 

"Everybody here will agree, I assume, that all who have the potential to benefit from higher education should have the opportunity to do so. That number is set to surge in the coming decade. Recent studies conducted by the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, one of our partners this evening, show that demand for higher education places is growing, and will continue to grow. Demographic factors alone will produce an increase in demand by suitably qualified school leavers by at least 150,000 by 2010. Other factors, such as better school performance and the impact of widening participation measures, will push up demand for undergraduate places to anything between 180,000 and 250,000. 

"So we face a stark choice: either we expand to meet demand or we turn well-qualified students away. If we choose not to expand Ė as the Conservatives propose Ė it will be students from non-traditional and low income backgrounds, who are perhaps the first in their family to try for a university place, who are most likely to miss out. But if we choose to expand, we need to pay for it somehow. We think Lord Dearing was right when he said that these costs should be shared by all those who benefit from higher education. 

"Itís clear that students benefit, so they should make a contribution. So does society as a whole. I havenít talked about the two other figures on this backdrop, but not only are our universities a major employer, they contribute an enormous amount to the national economy. In fact, for every £1 million of public money spent on higher education, £1.54 million is generated in the rest of the economy. 

"Universities UK has argued that public money invested in higher education is money well spent, and that itís right, therefore, to ask Government to invest more of the revenue from taxes into the sector. Weíve argued this consistently, but although we have had a relatively generous settlement this year, it's clear that there simply isnít enough in the public expenditure pot.

"Please, make no mistake about it, we donít ask those who go to university to pay more because we want to saddle them with debts. We recognise that fear of large debts may put off students, especially from low income backgrounds. We are urging the Government to increase the maintenance grant for poor students and to widen eligibility for grants. And we accept that Universities should reinvest a proportion of the higher fees into fee waivers, bursaries and other measures to ensure that the fees do not deter students from low-income families.

"I do, however, want to emphasise the significance of the Government proposal to switch from up-front fees to graduate repayment. Under the Governmentís proposals, university education Ė on every full-time course and at every university Ė will be free at the point of entry. It will not be the student, or the parent, who pays, but the graduate, subject to the income they earn and only when they earn it. Opponents object that bright low-income students will feel forced to choose the low-fee local University of Poppleton because they won't be able to afford the £3,000 fee at Cambridge. No they won't. That is to miss the point. It wonít be the low-income 18-year-old student, or his or her parents, who pay the Cambridge tuition fee; it will be the middle and upper income Cambridge graduate who pays. We think thatís much fairer than the current system of up-front fees.

"The White Paper accepts that there is a £9.9bn funding gap. The 2002 Spending Review produced an additional £3.7bn Ė a sizeable sum, but not enough even to halve the gap. That gap will anyway widen further with expansion of student numbers. It simply cannot be met by taxation alone, on which there are many other strong claims - schools, mental health, transport etc. The only reason that universities have avoided bankruptcy is by allowing buildings and facilities to deteriorate and by allowing salaries to fall way behind the rest of the public sector, let alone the private sector Ė as the AUT keeps telling us. This cannot go on any longer. The elastic is very thinly stretched already and if we are to expand to meet the demand we expect by 2010, it will snap unless more funding is found. 

"Without proper funding, universities will not be able to provide the quality of higher education that students deserve, none more so than first-generation students Ė well qualified teachers, up-to-date IT facilities, properly stocked libraries, adequately-equipped laboratories. And we shall not be able to offer places to the large numbers of additional students leaving school and college with good A-levels. Indeed, many universities, including the most prestigious, are likely to cut back on their intake of UK students in order to admit overseas students and postgraduate students to whom they can charge realistic fees. Thatís not something that any university wants to do, but they may have no alternative.

"There are good reasons, too, for being able to vary the level of fee between courses. The cost of courses differs both between and within universities, as does demand. Universities can respond much more flexibly both to student and national needs if they can set the fees rather than having an artificial one-price-fits-all imposed on them. Of course, some courses will be priced at £3,000, but others that attract fewer students and serve the national interest such as chemistry, physics and mathematics are likely to be offered at a lower fee or with a large number of fee waivers. We know that some science courses are under-subscribed, but we want to be able to attract more students into them to build our future skills in that area, and maintain our world class position. 

"Iím happy, and so are Universities UK staff here tonight, to talk to any of you in more detail about why we think an increased graduate contribution system is the right way forward. Youíll hear a lot more from us over the next few months as the debate hots up, and the Higher Education Bill begins its progress through the Houses of Parliament. 

"We may differ from the Government in a number of respects with regard to their policy for higher education Ė but I think we agree that the time has come for some hard choices. Either we find a new way to fund the higher education system or you will see people giving up on their aspirations, see quality being compromised, and hear doors being closed to bright students. 

"At this meeting we asked "whatís it worth?". I hope Iíve started that debate." 


Speakers at the fringe meeting, hosted by Universities UK with the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Smith Institute, were Charles Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills; Professor Ivor Crewe, President, Universities UK; and Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail. Bahram Bekhradnia, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, chaired the meeting. 

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Last updated 1 October 2003 10:55
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