Fees, universities and philanthropy

This post follows on from my musings on the costs of education and training. It looks at the issue of alumni relations – relationships between institutions and their past members. I’ve titled this post as such because a number of readers of this blog will, like myself have had some sort of experience with higher education. (Accordingly, they may also be familiar with the mailings from their former universities’ alumni offices asking for money).

How did we get to here?

The cohort of students I was in was the second year of the original ‘up front’ university tuition fees – a policy that for me was a piece of political cowardice by Tony Blair’s administration as it was for John Major’s administration because the Dearing Inquiry that brought in the era of fees was commissioned in the middle of 1996 – reporting back a couple of months after New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. Those that don’t learn from their history are cursed to … exactly. (See here for ‘who should pay?‘).

Did Labour’s 1997 manifesto say anything about up front fees? Scroll down to “Higher Education”. Did the Conservative manifesto for 1997 say anything about up front fees? Scroll down to “Lifetime Learning.”

Labour’s 2001 manifesto said “We will not introduce ‘top up fees’ and have legislated to prevent them”. Ooops. Labour went and passed the Higher Education Act 2004 of which Section 26 (2)(b)(ii) gave powers to ministers to bring in higher fees through a statutory instrument rather than through primary legislation. This piece of legislation cost Labour’s former MP for Cambridge Anne Campbell her seat in Parliament in the 2005 general election. When the Browne Review (that Labour set up) reported back just after the 2010 general election, it should have come as no surprise that a Conservative-led coalition would bring in higher fees using powers under that Act – which they did through the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2010.

This timeline shows that the principle of university tuition fees was avoided completely by Labour and the Conservatives in 1997 in the same way that the principle of significantly higher fees was also avoided in 2010 by ensuring that an ‘independent review’ would report just after a general election to enable whoever took power could drive through an inevitably unpopular policy early on – far away from the next general election.

My issue in this and in previous blogposts takes aim primarily at the flawed processes of policy-making. This in my view is an example of very bad policy-making processes – but very smart politicking if you are a senior politician wanting to impose a very unpopular policy. It’s been this sort of politicking that has given the senior politicians of today a reputation that quite frankly they deserve. Combine this sort of behaviour, too close a relationship with big business and the corporate media, along with the expenses scandal and you have the implosion of politics that we see today.

What’s this got to do with fees, university and philanthropy? The universities will have to pick up the pieces.

There’s part of me which would have loved to have had a life-long ‘relationship’ with an institution that I had been a student of. One where the people who make up the institution don’t treat you as just another number when you are in the institution and a potential cash cow once you’ve left it. But that’s not going to happen with me. The only institution that I have any sort of affinity to as far as my educational days are concerned is primary school. My final year at secondary school was spent with what felt like a large proportion of that cohort wanting to leave for pastures new (in various directions) as soon as possible. Since leaving, the school has been flattened and rebuilt almost from scratch – i.e. the physical building that was once my secondary school no longer exists.

Two years at a high profile state sixth form college that was as large and as intense as Hills Road Sixth Form College, was never going to be a long enough time period for it to be able to build any sense of ‘loyalty’ from its former students, a number of whom are from affluent backgrounds and many of whom go onto Oxford or Cambridge. (Does anyone have data on the state/private split on Hills Road’s intake?) Has it and other sixth form/further education colleges managed to overcome that hurdle? Feel free to comment.

This then brings me onto universities. The bringing in of fees affected my mindset in terms of my relationship with the university – and I remember giving my personal tutor a hard time over it at the end of my first year. In a nutshell I said that I spent most of the first year covering the stuff I had done during my A-Levels and didn’t feel that I had got ‘value for money’ (a concept that we were taught as being a fundamental pillar to the economics degree I was studying for) for both the fees and my overall expenditure. Things barely improved value-for-money-wise in the second and third years in terms of my university experience. Although ticking all of the boxes of higher education – upper second in a ‘respectable’ (as far as employers are concerned) subject from a redbrick university, I’ve not set foot in the university since and have no intention of doing so either. Which is incredibly sad. They still send me alumni stuff, but they’re not getting any money – not that I have any money to give.

What’s even more sad is that I’m continuing to meet more and more people who have graduated from university with similar feelings.

I cannot imagine what will be going through the minds of those students having to pay the full £9,000 fees and having the experience that I had. The fallacy of the mindset those pushing for the ‘marketisation’ of higher education (and trying to harness market forces) is that paying for a university education is not like paying for an apple at a market, or buying a gadget at the shop. Researching for a university and a course is incredibly time-intensive, made all the more confusing by the sheer range of both information and misinformation. You can’t ‘take it back’ with university in the way you can with a consumable. Dropping out of university is a massive decision to take for those who feel that they have made the wrong decision due to the upheaval and complications it leads to. A challenge for both universities and the political establishment is what happens if the number of extremely disgruntled students and graduates reaches a critical mass.

For the rest, the delivery of a university education in return for the fees (or the debt) from the mindset of ‘marketisation of education’ is a straight forward transaction. Once you’ve paid for what you’ve received, why give them any more? Do you give more money to the electronics giants because you particularly like your new gadget?

What will significantly higher fees mean for alumni relations?  How are universities dealing with the first cohorts of graduates that graduated under the original ‘top up’ fees regime? Does this provide an insight into what may happen in the future?

Under the ‘higher fees’ regime, will graduates take the view that they’ve already paid fees and taken on a significant burden that they see no need to contribute any further? (Especially bearing in mind the devastating picture for young people’s job prospects that at present seems unlikely to change in the short to medium term). Will alumni offices have to look elsewhere for additional funds for universities – and if so, where?

In terms of inviting comments, as well as from those who’ve graduated, I’m genuinely interested in the insights of those studying  at university, those about to head into the cauldron of the higher fees regime and those who work at universities who will be the first to feel the impact of all of this – if they’ve not felt it already.


8 thoughts on “Fees, universities and philanthropy

  1. I think that the implementation of tuition fees following the Dearing report was largely a function of the massive majority received by Blair. Major’s memoirs recall a cabinet debate on tuition fees (around the time of the report being commissioned IIRC) where he stated that “it was a mad idea, only that effing nutter Redwood spoke for it”.

    I’m not quite sure what the point you are making about developing a sense of loyalty to Hills Road Sixth Form College is. I still remember it pretty vividly after leaving 21 years ago and regret that it is such an outlier that my son is unlikely to get a similarly outstanding education in the state comprehensives in Leeds where we live. If the model used to make it become substantially more academically successful than the grammar school it replaced could be cloned nationally I’d be first to pledge my loyalty!

    In my 2 years there I’d estimate the state:private split in intake to be around 95:5 with about half the private school entrants being ones doing GCSE resits. It might have changed a bit since then but HRSFC seems to have been able to co-exist with 4 private schools (the 2 Perse schools having even better results) and the other sixth forms (at least in the late 80s Long Road used to get a fair number into Oxbridge too).

    They haven’t tapped me up for money (and why should they, they are funded by our taxes?). They managed to provide a very good education 88-90 even when the entire Modern Languages block was housed in 1940s temporary wooden huts and Maths, English and History were taught in portacabins. There was a frozen food depot in the middle of college which meant that what is now the quad was the place where lorries would load and unload during breaks between lessons. I haven’t visited the shiny and well-deserved new buildings, but I don’t think they’ve made any significant difference to the excellence of the college or its students’ self-belief.

  2. I made it through University before the days of Labour. I paid no fees to attend. I was provided with a Maintenance Allowance too; if we took a part-time job, we’d have to leave university (or try to convince them we could pay and keep up with the work load and participate within our faculty).

    I don’t feel like a number. First year, perhaps for some of the larger departments where as many as 800 students were enrolled (800 students makes it a bit difficult for you to be anything but a number!), it could feel a bit like a herd at lectures. However, labs and tutorials were very small and so allowed the staff to give far more close attention to us. The teaching staff were more than happy to help, give suggestions, put in extra hours, or send us off to find named people who would be better able to help with specific topics.

    I can’t say my degree course, our lecturers and my university was perfect obviously no one or anything is, but what I will say is this: I adore them, I adore my university, and I adore those staff members, all of those who worked to ensure I benefited from the best education I could have dreamed of to the best of their ability. Staff were passionate about their research, about guiding us, the lowly technicians and secretaries would bend over backwards when needed (and tell us off too), every member of staff from librarians, to cleaners to the cooks and security was vital, they understood as did we students.

    My have been called on twice to help save aspects of my degree course and we’ve been there to defend the structures that gave us so much. Why wouldn’t we be? We are part of those departments. We’re the ones with the direct experience and so able to indicate what worked for us and what didn’t, what was useful when we left, what wasn’t. Twice we’ve chased off those pesky business managers and we’ll continue to do so where necessary.

    Those buildings, the staff who work in them gave us so much more than their time, they guided us, pointed us towards the information we wanted to know, gave us the techniques we needed, but most of all encouraged us to use our minds, to look, to really see the world around us, encouraged us to really look like we’d not been able to before and to enquire with open minds. They gave us something priceless. We’ll give them support. Of course we would and we will. The university is OUR university. The departments are OUR departments. The Principal might find that a problem. If he doesn’t like it, he could try a career in landscape gardening!

    Many of us aren’t all in regular touch with our old department (those who are still active in specific fields that are in common with staff obviously are), but when we go back, it’s like going home to visit the relatives. Many who’ve gone abroad make a point of showing their faces, checking up on the secretaries as well as the staff. It’s like Christmas; you go visit the aunts and uncles, we visit our family, eat drink be merry (with the occasional squabble still!).

    I’m annoyed for younger people who don’t feel like that. Governments have not only let you down, they’ve let wider society and possibly future generations down. You’ve missed out on something special, more than a community you’ve missed out on family.

    Some things money can’t buy. It seems money has ensured you won’t ever have what we had. Those relationships are priceless.

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