Costly future is certain for taxing issue of education
Universities are unquestionably a good thing. But who should foot the bill for them, asks Professor Gerry McAleavy
The rapid expansion of university education in recent years has raised questions regarding how it is to be funded in the future.
Much of the debate has raged around whether government finance for universities is to be considered a charge on the public purse, to be paid for by the student, or an investment for the future to be financed by the state.
The introduction of student fees was a controversial policy.
Arguments for fees were based on data that graduates would earn more over a lifetime and should therefore contribute to the cost of their education. Others maintained that the data was historic and drawn from years when there was less participation in higher education.
Locally, the Department of Employment and Learning stated: "Even though the number of graduates has risen significantly over the last 20 years, the gap between graduate and average earnings hasn't narrowed and, if anything, has increased."
Equally, the minister, Sir Reg Empey, highlighted a Business and Community Interaction survey showing that "as well as the increase in collaborative research income achieved by our two universities, which now stands at almost £30m, the value of individual research contracts with the two universities are now, on average, 24% higher than last year".
Research commissioned by the Russell Group of universities has pointed to recent OECD data, claiming that "the UK's annual expenditure on higher education is lower than most other OECD countries, in terms of a proportion of GDP per capita, expenditure per student, and as a proportion of total education funding".
It is to be doubted, however, that these arguments and statistics will carry weight with politicians facing economic Armageddon.
While there seems to be general agreement on the value of university education, the battle to decide who pays for it continues.
An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, led by former BP chief Lord Browne, has been set up with the aim of "gathering a wide range of perspectives on the current system of funding and student finance" and examine how the social, economic, and individual benefits of higher education are maximised and shared across society.
It was widely expected that the report will recommend lifting of the fees cap, and would see the introduction of variable fees, perhaps up £7,000-per-student.
This predicted outcome has been rather upset by Vince Cable, who has proposed that, instead of student fees, there should be a graduate tax.
Under Cable's plans, students would not pay fees but, when they graduate, would pay a higher level of tax over their working lives.
Universities have concerns that the graduate tax, unlike student fees, would go directly to the Government, "breaking the link between university and student".
The National Union of Students, however, supports a graduate tax as the lesser of two evils. Others have warned that a graduate tax could encourage a 'brain-drain' of graduates.
Sir Reg Empey launched an independent review of variable fees and student finance arrangements in Northern Ireland in December 2008. The minister is currently considering the final report with public consultation planned for the Autumn.
Whatever is decided, it would appear that university education will continue to be paid for by students - either in terms of higher fees, or a deferred tax.
Professor Gerry McAleavy is director of the Lifelong Learning Research Centre at the University of Ulster