But what you have to do at the same time is allow a genuine market to operate in the universities. At present, the supplementary fee paid by students themselves is capped at just over £3,000 per annum, for fear of excluding the socially disadvantaged from higher education. The result is that nearly every university charges the same fee — the maximum rate allowed. By removing the cap, you would allow universities to find their own niche in the market. Some would concentrate primarily on teaching, setting their fees competitively to attract large numbers of students. Others would charge a higher fee in order to raise money to fund research time for their academics, by way of less onerous teaching loads, generous sabbatical provision, and so forth.
The Wrong Idea of a University
There is a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party to offer some genuine innovation in higher education funding. It could begin from the premise that good research and good teaching go together. It might even call the process “knowledge transfer” — in good universities, research questions emerge through teaching and new hypotheses are tested on students. The original proposal that Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer devised for Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher should be revived. Some form of RAE or REF, or whatever you care to name it, will continue to be necessary in the lab-based sciences. But in the disciplines where you do not need to spend millions and millions of pounds on hi-tech kit — in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, even pure mathematics — you can abolish the designated research funding stream. A proportion of the money released can then be used to increase the payment per student that government gives to the universities for teaching — a sum that has been steadily eroded as the proportion of the population going into higher education has expanded.