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Universities need incentives too – Mary Curnock Cook on fees and access

  • 21 September 2018

This guest blog has been kindly provided to HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook, Senior Adviser to Cairneagle, a member of the HEPI Advisory Board and the former Chief Executive of UCAS.

HEPI’s report on means-tested tuition fees and / or maintenance support is a welcome contribution to the debate about how to pay for mass higher education without making higher education appear too expensive for students from lower-income backgrounds. But it is not just lower-income students who need encouragement. Universities, especially more selective ones, also need incentives, as demonstrated in Alan Rusbridger’s highly-recommended new long-read on admissions at the University of Oxford. He sets out how the absolute priority of academic excellence for admissions at Oxford is expressed through (inter alia) the Norrington table which pitches colleges against each other. It ranks them by reference to the degree outcomes of each College’s students, thereby entrenching a deep risk-based aversion to accepting students with slightly lower grades from more challenging backgrounds.

As well as looking at means-testing fees, is it time to consider pulling new levers by flexing fee receipts for universities? Although differential fees by subject, based on graduate earnings outcomes, have been resisted for good reason, differentiating fee receipts by universities on a means-tested basis could have welcome impacts. In this model, universities would receive higher fees for accepting students from lower income backgrounds, with the higher fee level subsidised by the Exchequer.  In the same way that government tops up fees to cover the higher cost of teaching some subjects (for example Medicine), it could recognise and pay for the higher cost of supporting students from lower income backgrounds.

In addition to incentivising universities with poor diversity records, such a model would also reward the heavy lifting done by lower tariff universities in widening participation. Alternatively (or as well), a lower fee receipt could be introduced for students from more affluent backgrounds – recognising the lower cost of supporting such students – all the while retaining a headline tuition fee cap, currently of £9,250.

For example, universities might receive say £10,750 in tuition fees for disadvantaged students and only £7,750 for students from the most affluent backgrounds – with the top slice from the latter potentially covering the cost of the former, although some detailed modelling and a sliding scale would undoubtedly improve the proposition.  For students and the student loan arrangements, the headline tuition fee stays the same (whether means-tested or otherwise). The variation is in the per-student fee receipt by universities with a clear income reward for recruiting widening participation students.

Such a financial incentive for universities would surely drive access and participation activities into schemes that actually work, for example aiming primarily at improving the proportion of Key Stage 4 students who get good GCSEs – GCSE attainment remaining the biggest barrier to progression to A levels or Level 3 qualifications and thence to higher education. Universities would definitely want and need to increase the pool of qualified potential students for higher education in order to preserve their tuition fee income streams.

Add in a modest (additional) graduate tax on earnings over, say, £70,000, and funding for higher education could be transformed.  The higher presupposed RAB charge paid upfront by government for lower-income students would be recouped from higher earners whether or not they had finished paying off their student loans, and regardless of whether they originated from higher or lower income families as students.

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