For this eagerly anticipated and topical discussion, Andy Westwood (Manchester University) chaired an esteemed panel that included Simon Burgess (University of Bristol), Gill Wyness (LSE, UCL), Sandra McNally (LSE) and David Willetts (executive chair of the Resolution Foundations and former Minister for Universities). The speakers looked to address and offer insight into a variety of the challenges currently facing UK higher education policy. The debate was far reaching in its breadth – from fees and debt structures, to equality, accessibly and the provision of alternative further education. The panel also received prying questions from a packed room that included educators, recent graduates as well as a class of sixth form students about apply to university. The question of whether the present challenges facing universities spell a ‘decline and fall’ were opened up to the speakers who each took a unique and carefully constructed angle on the discussion.

What immediately became clear was the panel’s mutual respect and passion for British higher education institutions. Simon Burgess opened proceedings with a balanced and well-articulated presentation of the value that university education adds to our economy, and to individuals. He championed the skills and knowledge that graduates gain during their time studying and reminded the audience that degrees can be seen as an investment into our own ‘human capital’. Burgess’ view was that the advancement of our labour forces’ skill set gives our economy an excellent return in relation to the cost of fees. Crowd participation via a straw poll revealed that the subject of the cost of fees is a controversial topic and Burgess proceeded delicately, acknowledging the significant level of debt accrued by students in 2018. His economic response was that whilst demand is there for the wage premiums offered to graduates, the price of gaining this qualification will continue to reflect that. Burdening the tax payer with the cost does not make sense if the principal beneficiaries of degree programs are the graduates who enjoy higher wages in their professional lives.

Gill Wyness took the debate further with a robust and well-structured defence of the current Income Contingent Loan policy (where graduates only pay back their loan once they earn over a 25k threshold, and only pay up to the level of their initial fee bill). Her view was that, as well as being finite, this debt was also insured against lower graduate earnings and could be described as “a fair and accessible system.” This statement certainly fell on less sympathetic ears within the audience, many of whom cited the argument that saddling graduates with such a large bill is putting many young people off applying to university. Wyness also defended the flat rate of fees, referencing the enormous difficulty in pricing-to-quota faced in Scotland – where places are limited but fees are free to Scottish nationals, but unlimited and charged at £9000 annually for English counterparts, leaving a loophole where admission closes to Scottish applicants long before it closes to their southern neighbours.

The issue of degree inflation was also raised by the audience with one attendee proclaiming that the rising necessity of a masters degree to access top jobs was pricing poorer students out of the upper end of the labour market. Accessible loan schemes to bachelor’s degrees are all well and good but if it is a masters qualification that is now the golden ticket to a wage premium, then have the goal posts merely been moved? Wyness stood her ground and cited a similar line of argument to Simon Burgess. If the benefit of masters programs is great enough, the increased demand will be reflected in the price – an economic argument that may not have provided much comfort to the current cohort of job-seeking bachelor’s degree holders in the audience. Wyness closed her opening statement with a passionate plea to reinstate grants to help poorer students benefit from higher education and she left listeners with a wry dose of ‘preaching to the converted’ by declaring that, on top of this, “…Brexit is bad.”

Sandra McNally opened her address with an appeal to policymakers and voters alike, stating “we must take care of our Higher Education system”. Echoing Burgess, McNally praised the enormous value that research and teaching has on our workforce, as well as in industrial and academic progress. She then moved the debate on and opened up the point that one of the UK’s main short fallings is in the lack of provision of alternative higher education. These ‘level 4 and 5 qualifications’ form a bridge between (Level 3) A Level courses and (Level 6) undergraduate programs. Greater availability of these courses, McNally argued, would allow for a more flexible system that offers a far greater variety of options to young people looking to gain new skills and knowledge outside of the traditional degree structure. The jump from school to university is too great and leaves a gap in the market that neither the state, nor private educational institutions has successfully been able to fill. A lack of funding for these limited courses if a further barrier to entry and is a key policy reform that McNally is vocally campaigning for.

David Willetts then presented listeners with an essential consideration. “Universities transform peoples’ lives beyond economics,” the former minister mused. Not only do higher education institutions offer students the chance to study a discipline they love in great depth, “students also seem to quite enjoy their time too.” Willetts’ point was an important digression. Economic policy and fee structure aside, we must not forget the value of education and how we talk about it. Although it is certainly important to discuss these issues in terms of “returns to an investment in human capital”, and in “wage premiums”, we should not overlook the intrinsic and unwritten value that education has. The expansion of our minds and the passion found in study should be held in the highest esteem. Academic excellence is a gift for life and monetising the debate, although useful, is only one way of talking about these issues. This view may sound idealistic and romanticised to some but his argument extended to the proposition that, on top of all this, universities are “an enormous asset to any city… In ten years’ time, we don’t know where big businesses will be, or what the economy will look like. But one thing is for certain. The University of Bristol will still be here.”

The former minister’s point is an interesting one. In an age of rapid technological change and economic uncertainly, the solidity of higher education with institutions tied to their local areas is extremely valuable and reassuring. A glimmer of prestigious certainty in such a time of unrest is a significant reason to defend and fight for our universities. David Willetts’ passion also expands back out to the economic argument. The global prestige of the UK’s universities brings in foreign direct investment, overseas students and top academics from all over the world. In Willetts’ eyes, preserving this intellectual multinationalism and openness must be a the forefront of all reform and policy.

After a multitude of probing and well-articulated questions from the audience, the panel were able to leave listeners with a conclusive sense of determination to uphold our higher education system. Although gaps and flaws exist in the poor provision of sub-degree course funding and the inflated cost of masters programs, we must defend our Higher Education system and continue to promote its research and its teaching. Demand will keep the cost of fees with students, as opposed to the taxpayer but graduates will continue to gain access to improved wages. A ‘decline’ does not seem like an apt description of the current status and a ‘fall’, certainly not so. It is Higher Education itself that will help find solutions to today’s challenges, challenges which are closely tied many wider economic and political issues. In the face of uncertainty and the rise of new powers in the world, we must turn to our universities to continue to strive for progressive answers that allow us to sail on confidently into the future.

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Festival of Economics 2018 was run in association with Triodos Bank.


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