Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Browne Review

The Browne Review (wikipedia page) came out today and is being widely discussed. Here is a link to one of many news articles. (Added later: this blog post reports on a devastating critique of the Browne report. Added still later: another great critique in the London Review of Books. Added 20.8.11: another critique (by the same writer, Stefan Collini) with more overview of the historic context.)

On the plus side, it does an efficient job of demolishing the ludicrous "graduate tax" idea. Also, it acknowledges that
Other countries are increasing investment in their HEIs and educating more people to higher standards
And the graphic design is striking in a rather retro way. It would have been improved by being embellished with the dirty fingerprints of assorted Labour party politicians, since the previous Government commissioned the report, but although the fingerprints are missing, the following quote serves that purpose:
Students do not pay charges, only graduates do; and then only if they are successful. The system of payments is highly progressive. No one earning under £21,000 will pay anything.

We estimate that only the top 40% of earners on average will pay back all the charges paid on their behalf by the Government upfront; and the 20% of lowest earners will pay less than today. For all students, studying for a degree will be a risk free activity. The return to graduates for studying will be on average around 400%.
Of course, the above is too good to be true. It reeks of Gordon Brownism, in that it's making promises too good to be true: no-one pays anything, you get much more back that you pay in later, and Government can print all the money needed to fill the short-term funding gap. There's also some stuff about student charters that looks suitably new-Labourish.

However, the present government seem happy to accept this gift. The headline figure of 7000 pounds per year to study at a UK university is dismaying many people, although not nearly as much as the lack of any limit on the fees that may be charged.

Here's a David Blunkett quote that I found here
This is a complete betrayal by the Liberal Democrats of everything that they have ever said on higher education and of the platform they stood on at the general election. The Tories have already performed a volte-face on their previous policy. This leaves only the Labour party with any credibility on student funding and the future of our great universities ...

The fact that the Labour party introduced university fees in the first place, and commissioned this report, seems to have escaped his attention! And here is the single take-home message of this blog post: Labour is to blame (or, if you like fees, they get the credit). Don't ever forget that. And don't ever forgive people like Blunkett for trying to trying to pass on the blame to his opponents.

What happens next? i.e., more specifically, how much will universities will charge? Probably there will be a high ``sticker price'' embellished with a system of discounts and bursaries for students with good exam results. It is tempting to assume that Oxford and Cambridge will gleefully impose very high fees, but they will be reluctant to be seen to be shutting out poorer candidates. Below them, prestigious universities will want to be seen to have a relatively high fee since university degrees are a Veblen good, but then they will have concerns about being able to attract enough students at the basic sticker price. If high fees do not deter too many UK students, then overseas students may be a casualty, at least if they no longer pay substantially higher fees than home students.


Anonymous said...

> Students do not pay charges,
> only graduates do; and then
> only if they are successful.

Does it mean that if a student drops out then he doesn't have to pay any fee? That's what the sentence above implies, doesn't it? And this would be ludicrous.

Paul Goldberg said...

Depends on the meaning of "successful" I guess, it could mean they succeeded at getting a degree, or they obtained a good job. In practice the Govt will cherry-pick their favorite conclusions from the Browne Review and ignore the rest (like the last Govt did for the Dearing report).

Anonymous said...


Is it true what I understood from the university's website -- that PhD students have to pay taxes at Liverpool? Unless they are EU citizens *and* have been in EU for the past 3 years *and* get the Duncan or so scholarship?

That just seems like an incredibly stupid idea, especialy given how strong your research group is....

Paul Goldberg said...

By taxes you mean tuition fees, I think. Tuition fees are higher for non-EU students, but still non-trivial for EU students. Ideally, a student will be supported by some grant-awarding body, so there are various countries that give government scholarships that support their study here. And then, there are various grants awarded to universities, or individual members of staff, that may be used to support research students. But also, some students do actually pay their own fees (or sometimes their relatives do so.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for confirming this information :(

Jonathan Jones said...

You say "It is tempting to assume that Oxford and Cambridge will gleefully impose very high fees", but a glance at the Browne proposals shows why this won't happen unless they leave the system all together (i.e., go private). Under Browne you get to keep the first 6K of any fees, but after that the government takes a levy on any additional fees. This starts off at 40% (higher rate tax!) but then rises to 75% above 11K, making imposing high fees essentially pointless.

In exchange for this the government is withdrawing the basic unit of resource (£3947) and the existing fees (£3225). To stand still universities will have to bring in £7172, but that means charging a fee of £8044. Thus it is hard to see the major universities charging less than 8K. If they want to raise their income to £8000 they will have to charge £9778, so call it 10K. But beyond this point the levies become so high that there is precious little point in charging any more: if Oxford wanted to raise its Home/EU fee income to match basic overseas fees of £12700 it would have to charge Browne style fees of an astonishing 28K.

Faced with numbers like that it looks terribly tempting to go private, charge 15K, and keep the lot. Of course we would lose access to the loans, but that is starting to look like a price worth paying, so you can expect a major campaign to get our alumni (not those working in HE!) to underwrite a parallel loans system. Staying within the Browne system is a recipe for, at best, managed decline.

Paul Goldberg said...

I hadn't spotted that the proposed Browne tax on fees was quite that high! Going private starts to look good... by the way, I assume that the offspring of members of the academic community get a big discount, like in the USA?