The fee vote really comes down to two questions. First, will the fee hike proposed by the coalition government actually create an internal market in higher education? Second, what will be the
effect on the public finances? There is good reason to be doubtful.
First, the market: the idea, I suppose, is that world-class universities might charge higher fees than second and third tier ones. But, in the last few days, I've spoken to
several very senior higher-education sources who privately report that universities like Leeds Met, Bolton and Worcester are very seriously considering charging the full
£9,000 tuition for their courses once legislation is in place. The government is extremely concerned. As you can imagine, if that pattern is repeated across the sector, then there will
be no internal market in the short-term. Everyone will be paying a higher rate.
In the long-term, it might be hoped the market to become more flexible as universities vie for students but it's unclear how long that will take – there may be no change at
all. In fact, when Blair introduced fee the cap of £3,000 in the Higher Education Act 2004, it was designed to be a cap. Now, of course, they all charge it. There is no competition
The university sector makes a poor free market. It's very slow moving, and entrants only get involved once a year and, usually, for one time only. As a result there's likely to be many
undergraduates paying higher fees than a really competitive market would provide. It's very possible others, who might have attended if fees were cheaper, will not go at all.
As for what the effect will be on the public finances, there's a rather scary report
by the Higher
Education Policy Institute which concludes that:
"The answer to the question, 'will the proposals decrease the public contribution to HE' is, 'it’s too close to call, but they could actually easily lead to a small increase in the
public contribution'. "