How to depoliticise university tuition fees

Policy inspiration can come from the most unlikely sources. Quebec, a bastion of statist corporatism with a distinctly ineffective, underachieving economic system, looks like the sick man of North America. Yet when it comes to university tuition, the UK and Quebec have much in common: (1) good universities; (2) very low fees; (3) a strong student lobby; and (4) a social fear that universities (if allowed) will become inaccessible to those from less-privileged backgrounds. Despite these impediments to reform, a very sensible approach to university funding is being mooted in Quebec. This policy could serve as a model for the Lib-Con coalition as it decides whether to implement the recommendations of the Browne Review into university funding (released yesterday).

Instead of artificially and arbitrarily re-setting higher top-up fees, the Quebec proposal liberalises tuition by removing the cap but ring fences a percentage of the revenue from increased fees for financial aid to low and middle income students. Quebec has set the ring fencing benchmark at 30% (a much lower rate than Browne’s steeply rising levy on fees above £6,000). The role of the state is therefore limited to funding research, financing loans and bursary systems, and auditing the implementation of the 30% rule. This helps depoliticise university policy and constitutes a targeted and proportionate approach to access issues. This form of regulation is arguably less exposed to government failure than the current and proposed UK systems because it disempowers the special interest groups who battle over artificial restrictions on fees.