Brian McNair: Higher education is a worthy investment

Universities Scotland's recent report is a welcome sign that we've crossed the first hurdle on the road to a serious debate about how to fund our higher education. It is now accepted by those who run our universities that, in the wake of the Browne report down south, and the scale of the public spending cuts, higher education can no longer be free in Scotland.

Graduates must contribute, if we are to remain one of the world's most educated, creative and scientifically advanced countries (number two in research output per capita, boasts the report, which is indeed something to be proud of).

There are those who, in the run up to the forthcoming parliamentary election, will cling to the crowd-pleasing but dangerously complacent view that university should continue to be free, for everyone in Scotland (except the English, who are mightily displeased about what they see as discrimination), for evermore, and that there are alternatives to graduate contribution which can raise funds on the scale requited to keep our universities globally competitive. Universities Scotland have acknowledged, for the first time, that this isn't a tenable position.

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Yes the universities must boost research income, increase private sponsorship and alumni gift giving, and attract more international students. But none of those approaches, on their own or in combination, will do the job of keeping Scotland's universities competitive in a post-crunch global education marketplace.

All can and should be pursued, consistent with maintaining academic quality and independence from business and government. But they could never compensate for the cuts being announced at Westminster, not to mention the demands already being placed on a straining system by our commendably high participation rates (something else we can be justly proud of). And when you think about it, why should they be expected to? Why shouldn't people pay for university? You buy a car, let's say for 15,000. Five years later it's worth a third of that if you're lucky. You've blown ten grand, and you'll never get it back. Spend the same amount of money on a four-year honours degree, and it will earn you something like 100,000 over a lifetime. That's the average difference in lifetime earnings between those with and without degrees. Free university was great, and I know I benefited from it.

For a few decades there, when not many kids of ordinary working people went and free tuition was in practice a subsidy for the middle and upper classes, it was also affordable.Now we have half the eligible population in higher education, and we simply can't afford it. Not unless we are all, including the low paid who never actually went to university themselves, willing to pay a whole lot more in taxation. I don't think we are, and, more to the point, we would be mugs if we agreed to. Student fees, should they come to pass, will still be a bargain in return for the future earning power and enhanced quality of life they will allow. Students and their parents know that, which is why the introduction of fees in England has had no negative impact on steadily increasing participation rates.

We might even raise retention rates by inaugurating a culture in which university isn't perceived by quite so many students as a four-year bevvy session spent mainly in the student union, but a serious financial commitment that requires hard work to reap the full benefits.

And that works both ways, because it's not only the student who will pay the cost of a graduate contribution system. We, the people who teach them, and the managers who run our universities, will have to improve our game as power passes to the fee-paying student. He or she will not so easily tolerate the genteel mediocrity and management muddle that exists in many departments, faculties and institutions across the land, not when he or she is shelling out thousands of pounds for access to a degree course. Scottish academics, like their English counterparts, are in for a culture shock.

I've recently moved to an academic post in Australia, which has had tuition fees - currently up to about A$9,000 a year for the majority of home students - since Bob Hawke's Labour government introduced them in 1989. The argument made in Australia then was the same as applies in Scotland and the UK now, with or without a financial crisis. As demographics and improving levels of general education pushed participation up - a good thing in itself - free tuition was no longer sustainable.

Australian students pay nothing up front, repaying a heavily subsidised government loan only when they have passed a post-university earnings threshold of A$42,000 a year. Early repayment brings discounts, and those who never pass the earnings threshold never pay anything back. Since the introduction of the scheme, and despite increases in fees imposed by the Howard government in 2005, domestic participation in Australian HE has increased by more than 80 per cent per cent (see table), from under 400,000 in 1988 to 731,000 in 2008. Another 270,000 overseas students - nearly one quarter of the total, worth some A$18 billion to the Australian economy - bring the student population to more than one million.

The consequences of a graduate contribution system are striking for someone used to the Scottish model.For one thing, there is much greater emphasis on student evaluation of courses, and of individual lecturers, often gathered through continuous, anonymous online polling. Student satisfaction, and high retention, directly impact on universities' income. Low poll ratings, and high drop-out rates, spell trouble for staff and institutions in a way that has yet to be experienced in Scotland.

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As experts in survey methodology will know, such monitoring isn't necessarily accurate. The system is unpopular with some of my Aussie colleagues for its crudity and the ease with which it can become an instrument of petty bullying by students of staff whom they may choose to dislike for any number of reasons other than the quality of their teaching. But it requires lecturers to think very carefully about how they teach, and how well they are preparing their students for paid work.

Courses are designed not by lecturers working to their own research agendas in quiet offices, but according to elaborately worked out schemes of assessment and learning outcome, drawn up by committees and consultants expert in the latest educational theory. I'm not sure if this is entirely a good thing, but it certainly keeps you on your toes.

The Australian system, driven as it is by student performance and outcome, places greater emphasis on courses which are vocationally oriented. Lord Browne openly declares this as the aim of his proposals for England, and it will come to Scotland if we introduce fees.

That can be a good thing, if it improves the articulation between academy and industry. The downside, of course, is that it downgrades those skills which universities teach that do not directly lead to careers, such as critical, independent thinking, or getting to know oneself as a person in preparation for the 40, nay 50 years of adult working life that will come after graduation for the student of 2010.

Some Scottish universities have already embarked on these paths, and they may find the coming revolution in HE easier to cope with. But graduate contributions will make them compulsory for any institution which wishes to survive in a world where students become consumers with choice and the knowledge to exercise it. The age of dreaming spires and ivory towers is over, if it ever truly existed. The future is going to be largely about targets, performance indicators, evaluations and outcomes. That's inevitable, and as long as change is managed sensitively, it can be good for everyone.

I for one am confident that students will still choose humanities and social sciences, media studies and journalism, English literature and Scottish history, because they understand the importance of these subjects. But they will expect a quality of delivery we in academia have not always provided.

That's fair enough, and we must gear up for increased expectations and demands all round.As long as there's a little time left over for intellectual inquiry and adventure, free thinking, and yes, even an occasional bevvy down the union. One thing's for sure: change is coming.

• Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism, Media & Communication Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University and a former Professor of Journalism and Communication at the University of Strathclyde.