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For the future of higher education to be truly global, education must be free for all?

  • 6 July 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

Earlier this week, I was privileged to take part in the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference Annual Debate on ‘This House believes that for the future of higher education to be truly global, education must be free for all’, hosted at Aston University.

As a speaker on the opposition side, it was an opportunity to set out some of the arguments for tuition fees, to the backdrop of the Augar review. In the true traditions of debating, the arguments put forward were necessarily one-sided but persuasive arguments were made on both sides.

Those who disagree with the arguments below are free to comment below. They will be pleased to know we lost the debate.

Thank you for inviting me.

For those who do not know, HEPI is the UK’s only independent think tank and we have done a lot of work with the bodies that have come together as Advance HE and, indeed, we are already working with Advance HE – for example, on our joint Student Academic Experience Survey, which we launched last month.

I want to make three points:

  1. fees can mean a better education;
  2. fees can mean more progress on widening participation; and
  3. fees can mean more autonomy, upon which the success of our higher education sector is built.

Let me begin by accepting that fees are not popular. But we are not here to claim they are popular; we are here to claim they work – especially when backed by income-contingent loans.

A better education

Why do I think fees mean a better education? I went to university in the 1990s, back in the days when we failed penalty shoot outs and just before New Labour did something Margaret Thatcher had never dared do: introduce undergraduate tuition fees.

Blair (re)introduced fees because he knew our university system was at risk of being overtaken by the university systems of other countries. The amount of money each UK university had to educate each student had been falling for 20 years or more. In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of students doubled and the amount spent on higher education did not go up at all in real terms, so the amount of funding for each student halved.

As a result, the education I received at Manchester in the early 1990s was not as good as it could have been. It wasn’t the academics’ fault: they just didn’t have the resources to do their job properly.

These days, our universities provide a much better student experience. However controversial fees of £9,250 may seem, it is a decent some of money to spend on people’s education – more than in many countries abroad, more than in the past and, quite possibly, more than in the future. Fees have meant a golden age for our universities.

I am not saying every penny is spent effectively. At HEPI, we have called repeatedly for universities to tell their students more about where their fees go. But we do have better teaching and learning facilities, better-paid academics and better support services than we did.

Students are more demanding, now that they pay their own way. Some people think this is a bad thing and I accept it is wholly good. But why shouldn’t students get some of the benefits that consumers get, including protection when they don’t receive what they were promised? That did happen much before tuition fees became such an important part of funding.

More social mobility

I also think fees can mean more social mobility. From 2010 to 2013, I was special adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science. I am proud to have worked on the tripling of fees to £9,000 in part because it has delivered well-funded universities but mainly because it allowed us to do something much more significant: remove student number controls.

So the second key point I want to make is that the best way to ensure under-represented groups can enter higher education is to have more places. Without expansion, entry is a zero-sum game that the middle-classes will always win by moving to a better secondary school area or buying extra tutoring or sending their children off on the sort of gap years that interest universities.

Rationing places means fewer first-in-family students, fewer white working-class male students, fewer students from care backgrounds, fewer students from struggling coastal towns and fewer students from other under-represented groups. We do not ration education before the age of 18 and we should not ration it afterwards either – but without a material level of fees, rationing seems inevitable at least until the electorate start clamouring for more of their taxes to be spent on higher education.

Free education is not just bad for home students; it is arguably bad for international students too. Until the early 1980s, taxpayers covered much of the costs for international students. When the Thatcher Government changed this, Neil Kinnock told the House of Commons international students would be ‘repelled by higher fees’.

In fact, we can date our success in attracting people from other countries to study here from that moment. When universities started charging international students the full economic costs of their education (and more), their numbers started rising fast. Without this extra source of funding, our higher education sector would be much poorer and much less good than it is.

The rest of the world

The motion of our debate is not, of course, just about England or just about the UK; it is about the whole world. Some countries have no fees for either home or international students. You can run a decent higher education with no fees – no question. Scotland does it here in the UK. Germany does it too. But you tend to find an absence of fees is matched by restrictions on places and less spending on each student’s education.

Let’s go further afield. I want to end by looking at Chile. Until fairly recently, they had the highest tuition fees in the world, relative to local wealth. Then, they elected a President committed to abolishing fees. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find the money to meet her promises in full, but a start was made by abolishing fees for those from poorer households. Three things happened.

  1. First, the Government did not provide enough money to pay for a full university education so universities were left underfunded.
  2. Secondly, the number of places the Government was willing to fund was capped, limiting the growth of higher education.
  3. Thirdly, those institutions which were able to ran as far away from Government as they could as they wanted to protect their autonomy by avoiding being part of the scheme.


  • I have given you a couple of anecdotes; I have tried to provide some of the trade-offs that policymakers in Whitehall have wrestled with under governments of different colours; and I have looked at other places – Scotland, Germany and Chile – to show why there is only one way you should vote in this debate.

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