The Parker Review

I was woken up by the inevitable news that, after his review of HE funding, Lord Browne recommended a lifting of the current £3,290 cap on student tuition fees, thereby allowing universities to charge what they liked (he suggests up to £12,000).  This was inevitable because appointing the former Chief Executive of BP to recommend changes to Higher Education funding is like putting the former Deputy Chairman of ICI (Baron Beeching) in charge of railway reform in the 1960s.

The public sector is not the private sector.  Whist some of the Freshers that have joined us this year may be described as ‘crude’ I am not sure just what experience Browne brings to the job of funding reform?  50 years after the Beeching cuts, this other ‘captain of industry’ is remembered for his naïve and short-sighted analysis and arguments.

Nevertheless, whilst I wait to be invited to review the financial strategy of some major blue-chip organisation, I have had some thoughts about what else Browne and others (including myself) can do to put some money back in the coffers, in line with his “pay-to-play” ethos.

Firstly, if you accept that those that benefit from higher education should fund it then why not start with the graduates that have already completed their degrees and are in well-paid employment.  Even better, why not go back to the years when the student contribution to university income was zero because, during this period universities were entirely dependent upon public sector funding. 

Based upon research from the University of London, I think we should be targeting the Class of 1968 and 1969 (which is, incidentally, the year Lord Browne graduated from Cambridge University).  Interestingly, university expenditure per student peaked during the time Browne was at Cambridge.  In real terms he and his fellow students benefited from at least twice as much funding per head than students today.  Nevertheless, just like many of our students today, Browne had a part-time job (as an apprentice at BP).  Unlike our students though, he didn’t need the money to contribute to his tuition fees.

So, applying his own suggested interest rates (2.2% above inflation) in a bit of a rough and ready way, to his debt of 57,000 1990 Geary-Khamis Dollars (which is an approximation of the 1990 price of his 1960s physics degree) then I think he should pay back £98,000.  I should pay back £51,000 (the cost of my education, in the 1990s was, in real terms, cheaper and I owe less interest).

If he doesn’t want to do that, then perhaps I should adopt the National Union of Students call for a graduate tax of 5% of income to be applied for 25 years.  Browne was one of the UK’s highest paid executives; in 2004 alone he earned 5.7 million…which would bring in £285,000 in just one year.  If he really believes in his recommendations then I recommend he gets his chequebook out.

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