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The Cost of Higher Education: Is up the only way? – MP John Denham’s RSA Talk Are ever increasing students fess the only way to sustainably fund higher education in England? Oxford vice-chancellor, professor Andrew Hamilton certainly thinks so, last year calling for the cap to be raised to £16,000, after all 'is a classics degree from Oxford of equal value to the same degree from former London polytechnic?' Those who support such calls point to the falling real income of universities, cuts to capital and dwindling research funding. ‘If England’s universities are to compete on the world stage’, they argue, ‘then students are going to have to foot the bill and cough up more for their education’. But not if John Denham MP, former Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has anything to do with it.  Enter stage left at the RSA last week, John Denham persuasively set out his vision, a radical rethink of the purpose and funding of higher education. Record student numbers have been achieved, notes Denham, not just with the introduction of fees but also through the most expensive delivery model of higher education – students moving out to study for three years. But this model of education is increasingly being called into question, with a third of graduates not in graduate work, continual employer dissatisfaction with the graduate skill set, and a ‘cost of living crisis’ according to the NUS, not to mention the debts!  In Denham’s view the predominance of this model is not delivering value for money for students, the tax payer, or employers. The introduction of fees has seen, according to Denham’s figures, the reduction of the HEFCE teaching/research funding from 62% to 10% (of selected public spending on HE) and a huge increase in public money spent on maintenance grants and RAB charges – the money the SLC doesn’t expect to recover that the government makes up. This arrangement impacts on the quality of teaching, and tax and loan payers who pay more to make up for unrecoverable loans.  In focusing on public expenditure and not featuring the money institutions receive through student fees, perhaps Denham is guilty of a sleight of hand, but he nevertheless goes on to make a convincing case for the potential of three alternative delivery models to better meet student and employer needs as well as meet the challenge of sustainably financing HE. 1. Intensive degrees: England has the lowest level of study time per week of all EU countries and surveys of Erasmus students commenting on their experiences of studying in the UK seem to back this up. Denham cites the popularity of the University of Buckingham’s intensive courses and predicts that such courses are a fifth cheaper to deliver and can offer a better student to teacher ratio.2. Studying from home: England is well covered for universities and FE colleges delivering HE qualifications. If providers could work together, sharing students and programmes, this fact could be taken advantage of making a considerable saving for students and the tax payer as maintenance costs could be reduced.3. Employer engagement: Employers should be more involved in co-designing degree programmes. Denham cites companies delivering degree programmes and the apprenticeship model as a mechanism of providing both relevant labour market skills and a new source of funding for HE. The final proposal made by Denham is the introduction of a ‘student entitlement’, a flat rate for every learner of say £15,000. Coupled with new delivery models the cost of higher education to the student and tax payer can be reduced. But as Denham says himself, these are crude figures and it is early days, so it remains to be seen how credible his estimates of reduced fees and increased teaching funds will be. Either way, whatever one’s view is of the purpose of higher education, it is likely that these new delivery models will become more prevalent no matter what party holds power in Westminster. The real question is, how receptive will universities be to this culture change, and will FE providers be able to capitalise on these shifting trends?  John Denham's talk at the RSA can be viewed or listened to here