Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, has challenged Conservative Ministers in Parliament to protect university autonomy in the wake of the Augar Review into post-18 education fees and funding. He comments that “the potential introduction of course fee differentiation dependent on subject could seriously undermine universities which provide courses rich in educational content but that have lower earning potential“.
Mr Zeichner said: “There is much to welcome in this review, not least the proposals to tackle the neglect of those who do not go to university, but the universities are right to worry about the proposals for differential funding for different courses, which the Secretary of State appeared to speak quite warmly of a few moments ago. Universities are different; they are not all the same—they have different strengths and different roles—and they are best placed to determine how to allocate resources, so can the Secretary of State reassure us that he respects and understands university autonomy??“
The Secretary of State for Education responded: “ I not only respect and understand but celebrate university autonomy. I think the hon. Gentleman represents a university city so I am slightly surprised at his question, because of course different subjects attract different amounts of money right now, and quite markedly different amounts of money. For example, a great deal more teaching grant goes into medicine than other subjects. The independent panel review report suggests there should be a different balance in the cap on overall fees and therefore how much variability there would be in the T-grant, but it is not introducing that principle for the first time.“
Mr Zeichner comments:
“The review‘s recommendations regarding funding for courses being aligned to the “social and economic“ value of the course do not specify what value means in this context. I fear this could lead to serious disadvantages for universities which provide courses rich in educational content but that have lower earning potential. This also stops universities from making their own decisions regarding their finances; universities must maintain their independence and their ability to make the best decisions for their respective institutions.“
“This is in no way the fault of Philip Augar – the terms of reference for the review were incredibly narrow, and dictated that he was not to make recommendations “to taxation, and its recommendations must be consistent with the Government’s fiscal policies to reduce the deficit and have debt falling as a percentage of GDP“. This means that the review was not allowed to consider putting more public money into post-18 education, so its outcomes were almost predetermined in their lack of ambition as the panel writing the review were constrained as to whether they could recommend real change.“
The Augar review also recommends cutting undergraduate tuition fees to a maximum of £7500 a year, and restoring maintenance grants for socio-economically disadvantaged students.