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Newman University President

Newman University President

NUS President sets out vision for HE funding

Updated on: 28/10/2009

The President of the National Union of Students has warned against the further marketisation of Higher Education (HE) and set out the organisation’s own vision for the sector during a speech at Newman University College, Birmingham.

Speaking last week as part of a series of guest lectures to mark Newman’s transition to University College status, Mr Streeting warned that increasing marketisation of the sector could lead to growing inequality between HE institutions, increased prejudice from leading employers and reduced access to HE for those from non-traditional backgrounds.

“The idea of liberal education – pursuing the goal of extending knowledge to satisfy curiosity and better understand the world as a whole – has been under pressure since the first major expansion of higher education in the latter half of the nineteenth century,” he explained.

“But in today’s mass system of higher education, in which over forty percent of all people aged 18 to 30 will participate in some way, this pressure is increasing.

“As things stand, HE institutions are increasingly being called on to refocus their courses on job-related skills in order to justify increasing public investment in the sector. Fee-paying students are also being encouraged to become consumers, focusing on the outcomes of their courses rather than the learning and experiences involved.

“In turn, this has led to increasing competition between HE institutions, with increasing budgets spent on glossy prospectuses and websites to ‘market’ the value of their courses, attract the best applicants and secure positions in league tables that inherently suggest a gulf in the quality of teaching between one institution and another that simply doesn’t exist.”

With the Review of Higher Education Funding due to report before the end of the year, Streeting believes he can see a tipping point ahead.

“The review will lead to one of three basic situations coming about over the next five years,” he continued. “Firstly, we may see the status quo maintained, with the cap on tuition fees remaining and only being raised only a small amount, which would encourage all HE institutions to continue charging the full amount.

“Alternatively, we could see a significant extension of the market logic in the system, with a significant rise to the level of the fee cap that would encourage institutions to set their own annual fee levels. This would naturally direct different levels of funding into different institutions but would leave those most reliant on fees for their income – typically the newer, teaching rather than research-focused institutions – least able to increase them.

“This approach would also send out damaging signals about the supposed quality of different courses to both students and employers, bestowing more market advantages on already wealthy institutions while un-endowed institutions struggle to survive.

“The facts that 97% of students in the Million Plus group of universities went to state schools, compared to 70% attending Russell Group universities, and just one Million Plus group university has more home students from ethnic minorities than the entire Russell Group put together, also suggest that taking this route could considerably reduce access to HE for those from non-traditional backgrounds.”

Outlining the NUS’s own funding proposals, Streeting continued: “At a time when it has become the accepted political wisdom that individuals must pay a greater contribution to the costs of higher education, the NUS has come to accept, under protest, that an individual contribution to tuition fees is the only game in town.

“However, we believe that the student support system needs to be overhauled so it delivers money to students on the basis of their real needs, instead of playing a game of market incentives. Our proposals seek to separate student support from the costs of tuition, cut graduate debt and place an emphasis on flexibility and non-traditional routes into learning. Most importantly, it directly links the contribution an individual makes to the actual benefit they obtain and maintains a focus on ensuring that an open market of prices does not come about.

“Drifting into a more open market is not the only option for the HE sector. The sharp and rapid downturn in the economy has exposed the risks of allowing markets to run out of control and the dangers of loosening regulation.

“While the forthcoming funding review will address the ways in which a thriving HE sector can be funded, the real debate is still to come. It’s not really about who pays, or even how much they pay, it’s about the impact of markets on the process of higher education itself, how markets might change the very idea of a university and whether we collectively believe that change would be positive or negative.”





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