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Lords lean on VC's expertise to understand sector economics


How universities and students are coping under the higher education funding model was under scrunity at the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee this week, with Professor Julia Buckingham, Brunel University London’s Vice-Chancellor and President, one of the invited expert witnesses. 

The committee, chaired by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, pressed witnesses from four UK universities for insight on the effect of institutional prestige on student choice, the decline in the number of international students, the transparency of student funding – and other topics. 

Professor Buckingham set the scene for the economic discussion by explaining that the fees students pay are not simply tuition fees. “We often call them tuition fees, but actually they are university fees," she said.

“In addition to paying for the teaching in class, the marking of the work, and all of that – there is a huge infrastructure in the university. And those fees make a very significant contribution to that. They have to.

“I think there is a case for a more transparent way of expressing the way in which we spend our money. “

Tuition fees in England stayed level at £9,000 per year from 2010 until the small rise to £9,250 in 2015. When asked about the impact of the real-terms freeze of this funding source, Professor Buckingham highlighted what could happen to the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths, all areas which have a significant skills shortage.

“If our unit of resource is reduced significantly, it will have a very serious impact on STEM subjects because it will impact on our ability to deliver practical teaching,” she warned. “If we have to cut back on the labs, and cut back on the research projects students do in their final years, that will be to the detriment of the education of those students.”

In addition to using her considerable expertise gained at Brunel, Professor Buckingham represented the views of Universities UK – the executive heads of universities across the four nations – which included:

  • regarding the current fee system as progressive, whilst stressing the need to be able to maintain the quality of education delivered
  • being concerned about the rising maintenance costs for students, which often far outstrip tuition fees – and the need for increasing support for students from underprivileged backgrounds
  • the need to explain the student loan system in a simpler way, to reduce the confusion currently experienced by prospective students, their parents, teachers and the wider public.

The Economic Affairs Committee is one of the six permanent investigative committees in the House of Lords, to which it reports recommendations for government action.

In the session on 28 November, Professor Buckingham was joined by fellow witnesses Professor Sir Keith Burnett (Vice-Chancellor, Sheffield University), Professor Graham Virgo QC (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Cambridge University) and Professor James Stirling (Provost, Imperial College London).

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
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