A letter to Pauline Latham OBE MP

Dear Pauline,

I am writing to you to express my deep concern about the impact of the recently announced spending cuts in tertiary education and in particular their impact on the Open University.

I have been studying part-time for a BSc in psychology with the Open University since 2007 and should graduate this year, hopefully with first class honours. It has not been easy to achieve this for as well as the financial cost of study I have had to make considerable sacrifices of time and effort, as I work full-time, to achieve my goal.

As you are probably aware, professional careers in psychology require study to at least masters level. My intention in 2012 was to start an MSc in psychological research methods with the Open University. After all, David Cameron on a visit there in 2009 said “The Open University is a fantastic innovation that’s been copied worldwide and is a superb model of life-long learning” and he was absolutely correct.

Unfortunately, it looks as if this will not be possible, as the Open University have in the last few days announced the cancellation of all of their post-graduate degrees in the social sciences with a final intake this year, including psychology. See: http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/courses-and-qualifications/post-grad-courses.php for full details.

The only possible explanation I can think of for this is that the cuts to the tertiary education teaching budget means that they cannot as an institution afford to take the gamble of continuing to offer these courses in the hope sufficient students will continue to want to pay for them. As you are no doubt aware, these cuts have disproportionately affected institutions like the Open University whose primary mission is to provide excellent teaching rather than research.

In my own case, I would be happy to pay the full costs of my course as I am in the fortunate position of being able to do so, provided that I can continue to work at the same time. However, this choice looks like it will now be denied to me as the course I want to participate in will not be running.

I would appreciate your advice on how I may continue to work full-time from 2012 and continue with my goal of achieving an MSc in psychological research methods through part-time study, with an institution that is as well respected and innovative as the Prime Minister believes it to be. Perhaps you would also be good enough to pass this correspondence onto the appropriate minister within BIS for their suggestions as well.

Yours sincerely …

The end of the line for the OU Psychology Masters courses?

What a depressing thought that is.

When I set out studying psychology with the OU in 2007, my intention was that once I had my conversion diploma (or degree), it would act as a springboard into taking a leisurely canter through the OU MSc in psychological research methods, perhaps after a year or two break to do other things, while carrying on working at the same time.

However, that plan now looks like it will never come to fruition on the basis of the information in this message that has been posted onto the OU Social Science Faculty’s web pages in the last few days:

The Faculty of Social Sciences will not be presenting its postgraduate modules and qualifications after 2014. […] you will find details of the postgraduate modules and qualifications in Social Sciences that will be available to a final student intake in May 2011.

It’s undoubtably a decision that has been taken as a result of the savage cuts to higher education direct grant funding that the coalition government has chosen to make. (And it is an ideological choice, not a deficit cutting strategy, as I’ve blogged about before). As there are no loans available for higher degrees under the Browne proposals, it would be a huge financial gamble for institutions like the OU to carry on offering them and I don’t blame them for a single minute for taking this incredibly sad decision.

It really doesn’t look to me as if the OU is David Cameron’s favourite institution (except when he wishes to use it for electioneering purposes). It’s hard to believe that when he visited the OU in Milton Keynes in 2009 he said:

The Open University is a fantastic innovation that’s been copied worldwide and is a superb model of life-long learning

The likely closure of many masters programmes that the implementation of the Browne report will lead to suggests to me that the coalition government neither understands the concept of life-long learning, nor what motivates people to undertake part-time study.

I’m not really able to comment authoritatively on the impact the withdrawal of higher degree programmes will have on employment within the university sector. Presumably it will result in a negative outcome for teaching, research and support staff alike.

And if the best research and teaching staff do decide to go and work overseas, I would expect it to also have a negative impact on the teaching and quality of future undergraduate courses.

Still, there’s always great programmes to watch on the BBC instead of studying. Oh – wait a minute – they’re the next in line for the axe, aren’t they?

DD303 – the moment of truth approaches

I know when my course results are getting close – it means I check my StudentHomepage at least six times a day, “just in case”. Officially, DD303 results for 2010 are due out sometime before Friday 17th December, but in past years my results have been available a couple of days before then. Either way, this time next week I should know how I did and whether or not my “nuclear option” to do SD226 as well as DD307 next year is a possibility.

I’m not making as much progress with DD307 as I’d hoped I might do, given that the materials arrived a few weeks ago. So far I’ve watched the first DVD and read all of the chapters for the first block – but have barely started making any notes at all. I’d still like to have a draft of the first TMA written before the official course start date at the end of January / beginning of February. Maybe I’ll find some time between Christmas and new year to make a proper start.

I did say my last post on tuition fees would be the last for a while, but I do find the whole subject desperately sad and depressing. The report in the Independent this morning claiming that only a quarter of graduates will pay off their loans is particularly shocking and shows the act of vandalism being perpetrated on our universities and young people for what it is – right wing political ideology, pure and simple, which will actually cost both non-graduate and graduate taxpayers more, not less. So much for deficit reduction.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the Government will have to borrow £10.7bn to pay out student loans in 2015-16, compared with £4.1bn at the moment – with all but £1bn of the £6.6bn increase due to the tuition fees reforms.

A £2.9bn / year “saving” in the cut made to teaching budgets results in an additional £5.6bn cost to the taxpayer in 2015-16. An unsustainable system. Grrrr.

Tuition fees – my last word (for now)

The rather wonderful OU Platform student blogger Caz has posted an article today presenting the arguments as to why student tuition fees should be increased. It certainly made me stop and think for a few minutes and then decide I was right to oppose the current proposals after all!

My response is in the comments to her article on Platform, but if you don’t fancy going over there, here’s what I said in full.

Great post – and I agree with almost none of it!

I’ve been ranting on and off about the coalition’s approach to the funding of tertiary education on my own blog for the last few months and rather than repeat all of the arguments I’ve made there, I’ll try to sum up why I think we should fund tertiary education from general taxation, rather than having (former) students pay for it by themselves.

1. Direct government funding of tertiary education pays for itself on both economic and social measures, according to a recent study by the OECD. Their stand-out conclusion in the press release which accompanies their report is:

Even after taking account of the cost to the public exchequer of financing degree courses, higher tax revenues and social contributions from people with university degrees make tertiary education a good long-term investment.

Net of the cost of degree courses, the long-term gain to the public exchequer averages USD 86 000 in OECD countries, almost three times the amount of public investment per student in tertiary education. Overall returns are even larger, as many benefits of education are not directly reflected in tax income.

2. The UK public, even in the current financial climate, overwhelmingly back the funding of tertiary education through general taxation. The HEFCE’s summer 2010 survey shows that only 2% of the population back a substantial reduction in funding for tertiary education (which is certainly what the £2.9bn/year cut in teaching budgets proposed by the coalition is by anyone’s standards).

So our investment as a society (through the taxes the government collects on our behalf) in tertiary education pays for itself in economic and social terms, and is thought to be a good thing by all but a few headbanging economic libertarians.

Personally, I’m so pleased that we have graduates who are now the scientists, doctors, social workers and all the other professionals who add to our wealth and well-being as a country because they decided that studying wasn’t too hard. They took the time and made the effort to succeed. We should be supporting all those who aspire to join them, not condemning them to years and years of debt repayment (or additional taxes for being successful) after graduation.

Tuition fees – commons vote likely to be on 9th December

On the 15th October this year I wrote to Nick Clegg on the subject of the Browne report and university tuition fees.

With the vote in the commons now being reported on Sky News as likely to be taking place on 9th December, I thought I’d revisit what I’d written to see if I still felt the same way about the subject.

If anything, I think what is being proposed is even worse than I feared in October.

One thing that has becoming increasingly apparent is that it looks as if the proposed method of funding will not only cost students more, but it will also cost the general taxpayer more too. After all, the interest being deferred on the much larger loans that students will need has to come from somewhere while they are studying and earning too little to pay their loan off. The proposal therefore won’t contribute to the deficit reduction and will probably make the deficit worse by 2014-15. Madness.

I’ve also had time to read the OECD’s report (which I’ve blogged about previously) which demonstrates that government funding of tertiary education pays for itself in both monetary and social terms over the lifetime of the individuals receiving it.

In addition to the OECD report, the HEFCE has now also published the full details of their survey into the attitudes of the public into the funding of tertiary education.

It’s worthwhile reading and demonstrates that only 2% of the public think that a substantial reduction in government funding for tertiary education (which is what the announced 80% / £2.9bn cut in university teaching budgets is) should take place. More than 80% of respondents thought that funding should be maintained or increased from 2009 levels.

No wonder the coalition is in such a mess over this – there isn’t that level of agreement from the UK public about anything else in politics that I can think of.

The tuition fees policy therefore has no financial rationale, almost no public support and is being driven through largely because the Conservative elements of the coalition believe in their hearts that tertiary education should be privatised, with public support going only to “economically useful” subjects. After all, what have the social sciences, humanities and arts ever done for us?

I’m ashamed that people I considered to be good Liberals or Social Democrats have been duped over this, as even Vince Cable now seems to be belatedly realising, talking openly about the possibility of him abstaining on his own department’s proposals.

The NUS aren’t helping the cause much either – particularly as there’s little practical difference between their graduate tax and the coalition’s graduate contribution proposals. The NUS are focusing their firepower in the wrong direction.

The real issue is the withdrawal of the £2.9bn/year from funding HE teaching. As this will cost taxpayers more in the long run it needs to be seen for what it is – a policy motivated by a destructive political ideology, rather than a pragmatic approach to providing the future skills our country needs.

A plague on both your houses

As a way of distracting myself, I’ve been looking through Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators and becoming increasingly convinced that UK politicians of all parties are missing the point about the funding of higher education.

The OECD’s stand-out conclusion?

Even after taking account of the cost to the public exchequer of financing degree courses, higher tax revenues and social contributions from people with university degrees make tertiary education a good long-term investment.

The £2.9bn cut per year to university teaching budgets is therefore far worse than it seems. If students are put off going to university because of the 30 year tax/debt/contribution (call it what you will) burden they’ll end up with, the UK will lose out in terms of future tax revenues.

If they’re not put off, then we’ll end up having to support them with additional public funding when they retire (the 9% graduate contribution above £21,000 is about what I’ve managed to save of my income through pension payments over the last 25 years or so).

So the short term ‘saving’ will pretty soon become a financial penalty on the UK economy, every bit as bad, if not worse than, the interest we pay on the UK deficit.

In fact the cut may have worse consequences than purely economic ones. The OECD also measures the social benefits of a tertiary education (See indicator A9). It shows that those who have experienced tertiary education in the UK are healthier, take a more active interest in politics and society (are you listening, David Cameron?) and display higher levels of interpersonal trust.

So my message to politicians of all parties is simple –  “a plague on both your houses“.

Labour – for introducing and trebling tuition fees when you were in power, despite your manifesto pledges not to do so and for commissioning the Browne review.

The coalition – for being suckered in by Browne and appearing to want to go one better than Labour by trebling student contributions yet again.

Dear Mr. Bean …

Dear Martin,

I can understand why the Open University and you specifically are welcoming the Browne review. It appears, quite rightly, to put part-time degree study on a level playing field with full-time study. For those of us who are OU students or thinking about study with the OU, this ought to be welcome news.

But what will the “level playing field” really mean to students? My concern is that it will inevitably involve students paying far higher fees in the long-term for an OU education. You’ve been remarkably silent about this in the statement put out by your press team and also in the media interviews I’ve heard you conduct today.

What I and many other OU students want to know from you as a matter of urgency is an indication of what your plans for fees are in the medium term. I appreciate this may be difficult to do before the October 20th comprehensive spending review announcements, but a direction of travel now and some more considered guidance after October 20th would be very welcome indeed.

To be absolutely direct,  is the OU intending to raise fees to £3,000+ for a typical 60 credit undergraduate module – the equivalent of half a year’s study at a brick university? If you are, then I guess that’s understandable given the way in which ELQ funding was slashed under the previous government and the unwillingness of the current coalition to see universities as a collective investment in our future prosperity as a nation. On the other hand, if you’re not intending to raise fees to this level, then I think you ought to be making a virtue of not only the flexibility that OU study provides to its students, but that in these stressed economic times it makes sense for more students to consider following the OU route, whatever their age.

You see, without this vital piece of information from you, I think it is perhaps just a little bit too early for the self-congratulatory tone of the statements you’ve made today welcoming the Browne report.

I look forward to your response.

Tim.