Spinning Fees

September 7, 2011

Edinburgh University to become most expensive in Britain. Crumbs. (This is yesterday’s news – eg here and here – but, hey I was busy.) As I am an employee, I had better add that what follows is personal opinion and not to be construed as the stance of Edinburgh University etc – but actually what I have to say is about the Scotttish university situation in general anyway, not really about Edinburgh. And whats more, I do actually feel that Edinburgh University is getting a raw deal in press coverage. There has been a real attempt to put money aside so that anybody with talent can come.

Two days ago, all the academic staff got an email from the University announcing the reluctant decision to charge £9000. Later that evening doing me ironin’ in front of the box, there it was on the televisual news : shock horror Edinburgh most expensive. Of course several English universities have gone for £9000, but we have four year degrees. Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt have also announced £9000/year, but they have capped the total at £27,000. (First year free !!) I thought I should check the University web page and see what our own news story said. Err.. nothing there ?

Then I realised there was a related news story. The headline said “UK’s most generous bursary package”. If you click through to the story the second paragraph explains it was made possible by the decision to go for full fees. So this is the Harvard model – large fees for those who can afford it, coupled with a  commitment to seek out talent regardless of funding. This seems to me a perfectly respectable way of proceeding – if you can keep your reputation as high as Harvard’s. We are within hailing distance but not spitting distance I would say.

Anyway, that spin failed. The news stories the next morning were full of shock horror mega-expensive scandalising. Union guy Kirkpatrick is quoted as saying “…giving the signal that Edinburgh University is more interested in the money you can bring, as opposed to your academic ability” whereas of course our news story aim was just the opposite.

There are two hidden background rumbles. The first is that these are “indicative fees”. What they indicate is that the Scottish government has forced us into it, by insisting that Scottish students are completely free, and providing no subsidy for non-Scottish students. (Very different to Wales).  However the government position is not yet quite finalised, so this must be part of a rather public brinkmanship game.

The second rumble is about EU law. Standard Scottish University understanding is that we have to charge students from the rest of the EU the same as Scottish students – nothing –  but we are allowed to have a differential policy within the UK. There may well be legal challenges by English students. In the US, it is normal for public universities to charge smaller fees for in-state residents. If we see Europe as the United States of Europe, why can’t we do the same ? The answer staring us in the face is that say all EU students – whether German or English – get charged  say 6000/yr, but local subsidy allows Scottish-resident students to be charged say 2000/yr. I believe the Irish achieve something like this in a cunning fashion by distinguishing between “fees” and “service charges”.

Well. Dream on, I guess.