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Give and take on higher education

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THE current Government did not commission Lord Browne's review of university funding, nor is it obliged to follow its recommendations. However, his report will inevitably form the basis on which the subject is debated from now on.*

From a veterinary perspective, any arrangements requiring an increased contribution from students, albeit after they graduate, can only be viewed with concern. A veterinary course is expensive for universities to run and expensive for students to take. The potential costs to students are already higher than in many other subjects, both because of the length of the course, which means that annual tuition fees have to be paid for more years and debts can accumulate over a longer period, and because extramural studies requirements and the intensive nature of the course make it difficult for students to supplement their income through part-time work or by working in vacations.

Despite this, demand for the veterinary course remains strong, at least for the time being, and universities will almost certainly set fees at the upper end of the spectrum. This will lead to students graduating with an even greater burden of debt than at present, which they will want to pay off and which will affect their career choices on graduating. The need to pay off the debt, along with the interest, will do nothing to attract veterinary graduates into traditionally less lucrative areas of activity such as research, where their skills are desperately needed, and will also have a knock-on effect on veterinary practices. Despite the efforts that have been made to widen participation in veterinary education in recent years, the demographic mix in the profession far from reflects that of society as a whole, and the prospect of substantially higher debts on graduating will undermine the efforts being made by the veterinary schools to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds onto the course.

One glimmer of hope in this otherwise bleak scenario is a recommendation in the report that veterinary science, along with clinical medicine, should be considered a priority area for government support. Even here, however, there is no guarantee that the level of funding that might be available to universities will match what is currently available.

It would be hard to disagree with the general principles behind the review as presented in the report which, by presenting the recommendations in a very positive light, works hard to give the impression that everyone will gain. Calls for improved careers advice for school students are commendable, as is the general principle that everyone who has the potential should be able to benefit from higher education. However, much will depend on the detail and some of the proposals, such as those on how funding would be allocated during the admissions process, are rather vague and likely to cause difficulties in practice. The system proposed will be crucially dependent on students receiving good careers advice before applying to university, something which has proved difficult to achieve so far. Proposals to set minimum entry requirements for student support each year, and to focus funding in specific areas, will increase the Government's ability to influence university entry requirements and manipulate the educational choices made by students, and seem guaranteed to cause confusion. Proposals to simplify the system of grants, loans and institutional bursaries, and to increase the support available to those from lower income backgrounds, are welcome, but it is still hard to get away from the fact that it is precisely those from poorer backgrounds who are usually most reluctant to take on debt.

Lord Browne has described his recommendations as radical and there is no doubt that, if adopted, they will have significant long-term consequences. A more immediate concern is that decisions are being made at a time when the Government seems intent on reducing spending on higher education and research as well as in other areas. The prospect of cuts has loomed heavily over the review. Given current circumstances, there is a danger that the idea of transferring more costs to students is likely to be embraced by the Government, and that it will be used as an opportunity to give a little bit with one hand while taking more away with the other.

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