Yesterday, the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Staffordshire, Professor Michael Gunn, said:
“Too many politicians and political advisers look to the US where many students do not complete or default on their loans and to Australia to provide answers to what they hope will be some higher education funding nirvana.
“Strangely they never look to the Nordic countries where research funding is much less concentrated and funding regimes are more favourable to student participation and they overlook the German Lander which have now all abandoned polices to charge university fees. Politicians and university leaders also ignore at their peril Yougov’s recent poll in which 60% of parents said that they felt that university was no longer value for money.”
This has been interpreted, understandably, by the Times Higher as a comment on HEPI’s recent publications on Australia. These draw some parallels between the Australian and English systems and show how Australia has found ways to offer more support to second-time students and postgraduates, although they certainly don’t portray Australia as nirvana. Since they were published, the Australian Government has announced a new wave of reforms, which include abolishing the fees cap, introducing a real interest rate on student loans and reducing the student loan repayment threshold. This is unknown territory and it is not completely clear whether anyone in the UK would consider it nirvana. According to The Australian newspaper, Simon Marginson, an expert on the Australian system who is now based in the UK, has ‘blasted the Abbott government’s reforms to universities describing it as “the end of the world as we know it”.’
Australia is unlikely to drop off the agenda in coming months. However, Professor Gunn’s main point is a good one: we could all usefully benefit from more discussion of the university funding systems in other European countries alongside countries like Australia. HEPI would be interested to hear from people who wanted to write about such systems on here. Just as with Australia, there are likely to be positive and negative lessons: for example, Germany has managed to get rid of upfront fees but they send a smaller proportion of their population to university, which highlights the old trade-off between the number of places and the generosity of the funding system.
Of course, it is not necessary to leave the British Isles to find undergraduates who are not charged fees and Professor Gunn is undoubtedly on to something when he discusses the perceptions of value for money among students here. For some new evidence on this, watch this space over the next few days…