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Michael Farthing needs to stop treating his students as customers

Michael Farthing’s attack on 24th February against Labour’s proposal to lower university fees is based on smoke and mirrors and against the very people he should be speaking out for: students.

It is a surprise that our Vice Chancellor has spoken out against a reduction in fees, despite the pledge meaning that Universities will get the same amount of funding, that students will pay less and that grants for the poorest will be increased.

The truth is fees at university not only harm social mobility but transforms our relationship with staff from joint academic endeavor to one of customer.

In the article Prof. Farthing states: “The maximum tuition fee that we can charge is already £6,000, unless we come up with a fully costed access agreement”.

However the truth is that 125 out of 132 Higher Education Institutions, HEIs (Universities to you and me) in England applied for an access agreements. With only 7 HEIs not completing an access agreement its clear that these agreements are more about filling in paperwork than taking concrete action.

Looking at universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland 88% charge the full fee for one of their courses and the 10 universities which have the least social mobility all charge the full fee for at least one course.

Prof. Farthing states that “About half of our new undergraduates here at Sussex are now “First-Generation Scholars – with no family background of university education or from lower income backgrounds,”.

Clearly this is something to celebrate, but is not much further off the national average, and there are other universities and colleges which charge lower fees with higher first generation graduates.

Using the government data we can look at the poorest students (classed as those needing Free School Meals, FSM).  Only 21% of school pupils who received FSM went on to become university students in 2012, this is compared to 39% who didn’t get FSM. This is a whopping 18% gap.

This gap has stayed almost static for the last seven years. Recent figures published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that “pupils from fee-paying schools are actually claiming a greater share of places” than before higher fees. Social mobility has in fact reversed under fees not increased.

The university funding model is not working in terms of saving the government money (it has actually increased the national debt) and getting more resources into Universities (the new funding arrangements merely shifted who paid from society to the individual).

We know that there are wider benefits to society in having a high population as graduates, and this benefit is felt by people who both get the degree and those who use the services of graduates. It is right and proper that society and businesses pay for university as they are the largest beneficiaries, not individuals.

Whilst looking at reducing fees for university Labour has said that we need to re-think post-18 education all together. Taking some of the best parts of other education systems we will introduce a technical degree (which will be mainly studied at the work place in cooperation with universities) and pledge by 2020 to have the same number of students in high quality apprenticeships as go to University.

Whilst Prof. Farthing may think “It would be reckless for any head of a higher education institution to do anything but challenge a proposal which would appear to have such lasting damage…’’.

It is also clear that it would be politically and economically insane to not review a system which continues to fail to bridge the gap between the poorest and richest and also burdens the tax payer in un-repaid loans more than it once did.

My preference is the abolition of all fees (like we did in Scotland when Labour was last in power there) with universities paid for through a progressive taxation system.

A Labour government should immediately reduce fees to £6,000, but this will just be the start.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle

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