Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NUS wastes opportunity to defend students in Browne Review submission

By Sam Browse, Sheffield University

Last month, the NUS President, Aaron Porter, was invited to present students’ case to the Browne Review of higher education funding – alongside representatives from universities, government, business and others including the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU).

This was a key opportunity for the student movement to influence the debate over whether or not the financial burden on university students should be lowered or increased. At a time when Vice Chancellors and big business are aggressively lobbying for higher fees of £7,000, it was crucial that the NUS President clearly articulated a strong defence of students to those responsible for recommending changes to the higher education funding system. Sadly, this opportunity was completely wasted. You can watch Aaron Porter’s presentation online here.

The submission of NUS to the funding review – the Funding our Future blueprint – calls for a graduate tax. Far from being the ‘holistic vision’ Porter claims the NUS blueprint to be, it argues that the HE funding gap should be bridged by one source – students. Notably, the NUS leadership boasts of the increased student contribution their graduate tax would entail (Funding our Future blueprint, p.4). The NUS wants students to pay more, not less, for their education.

This was reflected in Porter’s verbal evidence to the review panel. When the NUS President was asked ‘what should students expect if the cost of education to the student rises’ instead of stridently defending students from an increase in fees, he emphasized universities providing a better ‘deal’ for students through skills and employability training and greater course choices.

In a recent Observer article, Porter said ‘there are some that think we should stick to the principled position of free education. But if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken’. This argument bares little relation to reality given the fact that the UCU - an organization representing university and college lecturers across the country - supports the abolition of all tuition fees.

The position of NUS is put into stark relief when compared to that of the UCU, outlined by the general secretary, Sally Hunt, as part of the same review process. Hunt rightly points out that the UK spends 10% less than the global average of its GDP on its HE sector. She said: ‘UK employers spend just 1.3% of total labour costs on education and training – 24% less than the EU average of 1.6%’. Comparatively, she argues, British business has ‘a good deal’.

Hunt argues that one of the main barriers to delivering a quality HE system is under funding. The immediate question is how to bridge the funding gap. Contrary to Porter, who says that ‘[NUS] don’t necessarily believe the structure of the funding system should be a driver to quality’, she suggests that the tuition fee system is ‘highly inefficient’ as well as ‘socially inequitable and politically unpopular’.

Instead, the UCU propose raising the main rate of corporation tax from 28p, to the G7 average of 32.87p. Conversely, NUS propose increasing the levy on students. The difference is quite remarkable given NUS’s aim to protect the interests of its membership.

The corporate sector’s comparatively small contribution to the cost of higher education suggests that NUS’s proposal to increase the cost to students is hardly ‘fair and proportionate’, as is claimed in the evidence to the review. We need a strong, principled alliance inside and outside NUS to provide an alternative to the leadership’s regressive funding blueprint. Contrary to NUS’s current position, we should join the UCU in explicitly calling for increased public investment in a free higher education system.

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