JOHN HUMPHRYS: Our universities are
in crisis. Every lecturer and Vice Chancellor has known that for a long
time and now Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Higher Education, has said
so herself. The problem is quite simple. More and more young people are
going to university. That's been happening for years. But this government
has encouraged a massive expansion of university education and hasn't provided
the money to pay for it. The amount spent on higher education has gone
up, but not by enough. There's also a long-term problem with paying for
research and attracting the best brains. It costs money and the money simply
isn't there. So the government's solution appears to be students should
pay more - top-up fees. That's what's being considered. Make some students
meet a much higher proportion of the real cost of their education. The
Minister Margaret Hodge is with me.
Mrs Hodge, you say a crisis,
you say more money is needed. It has to come, does it, from individual
students in the shape of top-up fees, that's the way to do it?
MARGARET HODGE MP: No, it can come from three sources.
We can either get more money from the taxpayer and increase public spending
on higher education, we can try and attract more private money from businesses
who get a benefit from the research that..and development on the new products
that come out of higher education. Or, we can get money from students and
their families and the issue we are addressing is how to get the balance
right between those three contributors so that we can meet twin objectives
which are really tough John to meet. Which is one, to maintain our excellence
which we do need because it's the high quality research which will lead
to the innovation, which leads to the growth, which leads to the jobs and
on the other hand, how we ensure that our most talented young people, from
whatever background, are able to access a place at a university without
a fear of debt.
HUMPHRYS: So top-up fees are in
HODGE: Top-up fees are one of the
things that are being considered and in January we will be putting forward
our proposals. What we are trying to talk about now is some of the issues
that confront us. If I can come to the student side of the formula. We
have expanded student numbers, not just this government but the previous
government and the previous government cut the unit funding for students,
there's over a third cut in the amount of money that now goes to students.
That has the implication on teaching standards, on the quality of the infrastructure,
the capital buildings, on the facilities, the books that young people get.
That is intolerable, so we have to tackle that. If you look at what a
student gets out of getting a degree, it is quite...well it's quite good...
HUMPHRYS: In terms of higher salary
and all the rest of it at the end of it.
HODGE: What we had was a recent
OECD study which showed at the graduate premium, the extra money that you
earn just by virtue of getting a degree, over your lifetime is somewhere
in the region of four hundred thousand pounds. Now that's the benefit to
the individual, then we have to ask should that individual, with the personal
benefit, not contribute more towards the cost of their higher education.
HUMPHRYS: If that's the benefit
and it has been, some people question that. But nonetheless, let's accept
that that's is the case, that there is a big benefit. You do have a manifesto
commitment don't you, not to introduce top-up fees during the lifetime
of this Parliament. So it cannot happen until we've had a General Election
in the next three or four years.
HODGE: We do have a manifesto commitment.
What the strategy document is doing is looking at the universities over
the next decade. I think we all strongly feel, is if we can't get our
universities right now, we're at a crossroads, we will all pay the price
over the long-term, getting the research right, maintaining the excellence,
maintaining the international competitiveness, getting the teaching infrastructure
right, so that you grow those skilled and qualified people to contribute
to the knowledge economy. Those are really important challenges and we
need to get them right now for the long-term future.
HUMPHRYS: But you're not going
- you say you haven't decided yet and you'll be deciding later. What you
will not do though, is allow students, presumably universities rather,
to charge students what they like. I mean in the case of Imperial College
for instance, it might be fifteen thousand pounds a year, you wouldn't
allow that, there would be a cap at some point, I am assuming.
HODGE: You are trying to push me
on the solutions that we are going.. the proposals we are going to be putting
forward in January and I can't John, be drawn on them now. What I can say,
is if you look at the figures it appears that students doget a good deal
out of university. You also look at the international figures and what's
interesting there, is we currently spend far more of our higher education
cake on student support than any of our competitor countries, American,
Korea and Japan. And Korea is an odd one, because Korea has massive participation
and yet spends far, far less on student support. So what then appears to
be happening is working class young people don't appear to be put off by
the lack of student support in a country like Korea.
HUMPHRYS: But if you're no.....just
to deal with that fifteen thousand a year that I mentioned from Imperial
College. If you are now prepared to rule that out, you will scare people
to death. I mean...and certainly working class students and their families,
no way could they afford those sorts of fees.
HODGE: What I can say to you now,
is we want to ensure we have a system in place that makes certain that
any young talented person, whatever their background can develop their
potential, go to university and contribute back into the economy. One of
the scandals of the higher education system, is that from the time
you and I went to university, when...
HUMPHRYS: Well I didn't actually,
I left school at fifteen..but there we are.
HODGE: Right, well there you are.
Okay, well certainly when I went to university, six or seven per cent of
young people went to university. Now we are up to about a third of eighteen
year olds, about over forty per cent of under thirty year olds. Yet in
all that period, and even going back to these sort of so-called golden
era when we had grants and no tuition fees, there has been absolutely no
change in the socio-economic composition of those who go to university.
HUMPHRYS: Well, there has been
a bit hasn't there, there has been a bit. I mean a lot more..the increase
in the number of poorer kids going to university was....I'm quoting the
chairman..the Vice Chancellor, what used to be called the Vice Chancellor,
he says a very clear four fold increase in poorer children and only a two
fold increase in better off children.
HODGE: Well, the absolute numbers
are up, so of course...
HUMPHRYS: And proportionately as
HODGE: No, in the proportionate
number it's in the opposite direction. If you look at the number from the
top three groups and the proportion of those who went in 1960 and compare
that today, and the proportion in the number of the bottom three groups
who went in the 1960s and compare that today, that gap has actually grown.
Now that's not an indictment of any other previous government. I think
it's an indictment of us all.
HUMPHRYS; And what's absolutely
clear is that if you now start imposing fees it is the working class kids
and middle class people with not very much money who are going to suffer
the most, that is simply obvious isn't it?
HODGE; Well we have to ensure that
we have a system in place that again makes sure that no young person with
talent is put off going to university because of the cost. But can I just
say it is much more complicated John. Were that it was only just money.
The real issue about getting more of our talented working class young
people into university is as much about keeping them on in full-time education
at sixteen rather than going out for a job then, making sure they raise
their attainment levels so they get the appropriate qualifications, getting
them to aim higher, raise their aspirations.
HUMPHRYS; But you won't do that,
is my point, if you start imposing these fees, and if you start talking
as Stephen Byers, former Education Minister of course did in the Guardian
last week, if you start talking about the ceiling being twenty-five thousand,
the cut-off point being twenty-five thousand that'll scare an awful lot
of people. I mean what is poor - what's your definition of poor. I know
you don't want to go down the road of detailing your policies, because
you haven't arrived at them yet, but nonetheless when you think about a
poor family in relation to this issue, what's poor? Twenty-five thousand
and above is not poor, is that what you're saying?
HODGE; Well, it depends how much
you ask of them, when you ask of them and I think those are the sort of
issues that we're attempting to tackle now. We don't want young people
to be put off going to university because of money. Let me just again
put it into its context. At present nobody whose family income is less
than twenty thousand pays even the thousand pound contribution to fees
and they get access to a loan which is just under four thousand pounds
a year. Between twenty and thirty thousand there's a taper, so actually,
only four out of ten current people in the system pay the full contribution
to the fees. That's where we are at the moment. Now there are students
who do complain as indeed do commentators, that people are leaving university
with a debt of in excess of ten thousand.
HUMPHRYS; Not just students, Mr
Triesman, your own General Secretary of the Labour Party, he complained
too, bitterly about top up fees, just a while ago.
HODGE: Well, let's put it into
its context. Set that money against the four hundred thousand pounds on
average that people will earn over their lifetime. Set that money against
how we're asking it back, because we don't say to people, give it back
straight away. We say when you earn over a certain level, we don't charge
a real commercial interest rate on the loan in the way again....
HUMPHRYS; So might you have some
sort of graduate tax then, so that they would pay it back out of higher
taxation once they're earning the money?
HODGE: You don't have to be a Brain
of Britain to think of how the options that are on the table.....
HUMPHRYS; So that's one of them?
HODGE; That - there are a range
- you know it's how much you pay, how you pay, when you pay. Those are
the sort of things that we are looking at.
HUMPHRYS; Okay, but one of the
dangers here, a very obvious danger here is that you'll end up with a two-tier
system of university education. You'll have the most well off kids being
able to go to the, as it were the Ivy League universities, Oxford, Cambridge,
Imperial College and so on. The poorer children and working - middle class
children as well whose parents can't afford these high fees not being able
to go to them, they'll go to the old polytechnics or whatever it happens
to be. That's a serious problem isn't it?
HODGE: Let me say a number of things
on that. First of all universities are different and I think we have to
acknowledge that difference. You and I know that, every employer knows
HUMPHRYS: Absolutely, huge difference.
HODGE: Huge differences. So don't
let's pretend that a degree in theology perhaps from Luton is the same
as a degree in accountancy from Oxford. So there are differences currently
in the system. That's the first thing to say. The second, I'm absolutely
passionate, John about ensuring that access to all universities, but particularly
to our top universities is based on talent and the real difficult issue
that we're all trying to tackle is how we protect that passion and that
determination together with ensuring that your top universities are properly
funded. That's the circle we've go to square. It isn't easy. Why have
we've been at it for such a long time? But it's the one that we're determined
to find a viable solution. Now I think when we come out with our decision,
let me say that, we're not going to keep people - everybody happy, because
as I said last week, there's isn't a free lunch in this world around how
you properly fund your universities and ensure access for students. There
isn't a free lunch in that one. But what we've got to do is try to be fair
between the student and their family and between the taxpayer, between
the university and the individual.
HUMPHRYS; It's an awful lot of
people you're not going to be able to keep happy isn't it, including the
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Paul Boateng, your colleague, because
he attacked the Tories, I was reading his speech only this morning. Tory
policy he said, is to use top-up fees. The result he sent on to say, would
be two-tier public services with choice only for the privileged few. So
in other words, he thinks you would end up with a two-tier system.
HODGE: Well, we're not going to
end up with a two-tier system, in terms of ensuring that talented young
people from working class backgrounds can't access our top universities.
We do have a system where universities are different, have different strengths
and I think to pretend that doesn't exist in the current university sector,
I think, is a bit na�ve.
HUMPHRYS; So you'd accept then
that - I mean Tony Blair obviously believes, or says he believes passionately
in a meritocracy. The trouble with this system is, it's fine if you have
the merit - I mean this proposed system- possibly proposed system, it's
fine if you've got merit and money. If you've only got the merit under
this top-up system you're going to have to struggle.
HODGE: No, if you've got merit
and no money we have to find a way of ensuring that merit actually succeeds
and money doesn't inhibit.
HUMPHYRS: Very difficult to see.
HODGE: Very difficult John, and
that's why we're spending proper time trying to get a sustainable long
HUMPHRYS; And you accept that the
problem applies to middle income people as well as the poorest. In fact
in a sense possibly even more if you put a limit on something like twenty-five
thousand a year for instance?
HODGE: Yes, I mean let me just
say one thing to you about...
HUMPHRYS; If you would make it
fairly brief I'd be most grateful.
HODGE: Okay, well, everybody wants
to be able to pay, but remember this is terrible British disease. Going
to university is seen by us as a cost. It's actually an investment, it's
an investment which gets you better jobs, better prospects, much more exciting
career opportunities and therefore we've got to persuade middle classes,
working classes as well as the traditional elite that this is good for
them as well as good for Britain.
HUMPHRYS; Margaret Hodge, many
HODGE: Thank you.