Ethics Forum

University of Edinburgh

Funding, fees and fairness: How should universities be funded?

Are tuition fees the fairest way to fund universities? With research funding for Scottish universities cut by millions earlier this year, where should universities get their money from? If public funding is not an appropriate source, should universities be privatised?

Have your say in the comments section.


Alex Salmong with legacy stone at Heriot Watt University (James Glossop/The Times)

“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students” Alex Salmond with legacy stone at Heriot Watt University (James Glossop/The Times)

Debate continues

The Scottish Government conducted an inquiry into the educational attainment gap in Scotland, which highlights the role that social disadvantage plays holding back even the brightest pupils from deprived backgrounds.


As it happened

On Friday November 13th, 2015 we held a debate questioning the way universities should be financed, and their role in a ‘good society’. The debate was chaired by Dr Philip Cook (Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Edinburgh).

Speakers questioned who receives the benefits that universities produce, and considered this important when determining where funding should come from. To claim to offer value to society rather than simply to privileged individuals, speakers suggested that universities must cater to all demographics they claim to serve. To that end discussion often focused on issues of access and the role universities play in either closing or widening existing social inequalities. The speakers agreed that while universities must do their best to tackle these problems through admissions practices and policies, their root causes are further upstream in educational attainment gaps that show up as early as 5 years old for those in the most deprived communities in Scotland.

Prof Sheila Riddell (Professor of Inclusion & Diversity, Director of CREID, University of Edinburgh) began by questioning who is truly benefiting from higher education as it currently stands in Scotland. Universities are selective services, which only those who are selected benefit from. She offered data tracing the history of UK and Scottish higher education policy, from its extremely elitist roots when only 4% of 17-30 year olds went to university, to present day with over 40% in the same age group having attended a higher education institution. The full study is available on the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity‘s website.

She argued that while Scotland prides itself on providing university education as a universal service, with the SNP taking this as a flagship policy in the referendum debate, it is actually prospective students from more advantaged backgrounds who have benefited from free tuition. Those from the poorest backgrounds are less likely than their English counterparts to attend university, and those who do attend now leave with more debt than others in their cohort, especially following the cut of non-repayable grants. Free tuition in Scotland hasn’t achieved higher rates of participation or greater student diversity when compared with England.

Tracey Slaven (Deputy Secretary, Strategic Planning, University of Edinburgh) also began by questioning the value of higher education, and encouraged a broader focus than that of the economic benefits to individuals or society. She reminded us that although the debate tends to focus on funding of student education, the research that universities conduct is a vital component of their positive social value. Concerns about the marketisation of higher education were highlighted as challenging the once strongly held Haldane principle that research funding decisions should be made by academics, as marketisation changes the expectations and role of the university in society.

On funding of student education, she argued that the quality of the teaching experience is imperative to maintain, as this is what allows students to achieve their potential. Focus on marketised outputs and passing exams undermines the sense of co-creation and engagement in the process of education. She also highlighted the University of Edinburgh’s contextualised admissions system, which takes account of the limits to attainment that students from the most deprived communities may have faced, in an effort to attract the brightest students from a full range of backgrounds.

Rob Henthorn (Vice President Education, NUS Scotland) began by underlining that even for Scottish undergraduate students who do not pay tuition fees in Scotland, students pay and often take on debt to attend university (albeit in the form of maintenance costs). He referenced the NUS report Roadmap to Free Education on the questionable economics of a learner paid model of education such as that in England, whereby government debt for teaching and research is disguised as student loans owed to the government. He also pointed out that on such systems those with lower lifetime earnings – women, black and minority ethnic, and disabled graduates – end up paying back student loans for longer, and pay higher amounts in total.

He also spoke to the marketing of universities, and echoed earlier speakers in identifying concerns with the marketisation of higher education. He opined that significant power is given to internal university branches which can demonstrate their financial impact, and that this can often be at the cost of providing a high quality teaching and research environment. Further, the market for international students was identified as a relatively unregulated free-for-all, as universities are in control of setting fees and marketing to prospective students as they see fit. In closing, he suggested that the intangible goods of education help us to create a society that is more politically involved, socially minded, and engaged – we can use this to tackle social problems that we are faced with, and should consider this a contribution to society beyond the financial impact of employability.

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2015 by .