Education & Family

University funding: Your solutions

England's university system needs a radical overhaul to give more value to students and taxpayers, the Universities Minister David Willetts has said.

We asked readers to submit their ideas on how the university system in the UK could be improved.

A selection of the hundreds of ideas that we received has been assessed by Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive, Universities UK (UUK).

TAX REDUCTIONS

"I think tax reductions for prospective students would lessen the need for higher tuition fees. I am planning to study at the UEA, and to save money I am currently working as much as possible. However, I'm being taxed for it which seems desperately unfair as this money could support me at uni and take the strain off the tax payer!" Edmund Taylor, Norwich, Norfolk

I don't know anyone who likes paying taxes. Unfortunately given the current economic situation I see relatively limited scope for tax reductions, even for people who, like Edmund, are working hard to save for education. However, the funding system for higher education means that Edmund will not have to pay tuition fees up front. He will only pay his contribution towards his tuition costs (and remember that the government also makes a substantial contribution through the Higher Education Funding Council) after he graduates - and the loan is currently exempt from interest. Support for the costs of studying is also provided via loans and grants for those with household incomes up to £50,000. This package of support is heavily subsidised by all taxpayers - so in my view Edmund is still getting a very good deal.

GRADUATE TAX

"The solution is simple. If you are a British citizen and you go to a British University (even if you do not graduate) then you should have an alternative to paying fees which would take the form of an increased income tax percentage. Former students would then pay a very slightly increased income tax the rest of their working life. Easy to administer, will generate equal if not higher incomes. Win, Win." Alexander Holland, Oxford

The idea of a graduate tax has a number of influential supporters - including the NUS. Universities UK does not support it for four main reasons: it would mean making an unlimited contribution throughout your working life, rather than one which is linked to your own course; there is no guarantee that this or any future government would use the money to support universities; even if the government did ringfence the income from this tax for universities, it would take years to come through - and universities need money now to ensure they can maintain the high quality education they offer; and finally many of the best features of a graduate tax are actually present in the current system - graduates (not students) contribute to the costs of higher education, and they only do so according to their ability to pay because payments are linked to earnings. In my view the current system has many of the advantages - without some of the major disadvantages - of a graduate tax.

IT SOLUTIONS

"Not replacing complete IT hardware and software systems every time Microsoft blinks would save billions. Most computer use is mundane word processing, browsing and email. It's a terrible waste of money that should be spent much more imaginatively. Lazy committees sign these off without a cost benefit analysis." Paul, Cambridge

I am not going to argue that there aren't areas where universities can save money or be more efficient - there have to be and all universities are looking for ways to save money without affecting front line teaching and research. But I also know that many universities are rightly investing heavily in their IT infrastructure because of the pace of change both in what is possible, and what is expected by students. We recently published a report showing how universities had used the income from the first three years of variable tuition fees - and investment in things like wi-fi and new media to support teaching was prominent. Universities are going to have to make tough decisions, but maintaining and improving the student experience, wherever possible, is going to be a priority.

CHARGE FOR SOME COURSES NOT OTHERS

"Why not make hard, needed degrees like mathematics, science, medical and engineering tuition free and let students pay for the others. Music, sport and languages need ability which comes from experience." Eddy Arnold, Lancing, Sussex

The government, through HEFCE, already makes a bigger contribution to the costs of more expensive courses such as medicine, engineering and lab-based sciences, and UUK would certainly argue that they should continue to do so. But we also think it is right that graduates of these courses, who stand to earn considerably more during their lives than people who do not go to university, should make a contribution towards the costs of their education too. I would also argue that while science, maths, engineering and medicine are important, we need people educated in a very wide range of disciplines to ensure we do well economically and in social and cultural terms. People forget the contribution made by humanities graduates in business and public services. And we know that the creative industries are one of the fastest growing areas of our economy. We can't afford to be too narrow in our approach to higher education. When you ask business what they want from graduates, they often cite broad skills like problem-solving, team-working and creative thinking - all of which can be fostered very well by arts, humanities and social sciences as well as sciences and engineering.

INCREASED FEES

"Being a university researcher and teacher I believe that if students were required to pay more for their tuition they might take their degrees more seriously, putting in and getting more out of them. If people were to save up before going to university, or do a part-time degree alongside a job, then they might value the privilege of going to university more highly, while at the same time preventing the build-up of personal debt." Sam, Sheffield

I think we agree that it is important that students and graduates understand that higher education was never "free". Someone always paid. Even now, government makes a substantial contribution to the costs. But since graduates benefit personally, we think it is right that they should also make a direct contribution to the costs of study. I think the introduction of fees has had two very positive effects - first emphasising to students the value of their higher education which has, I believe, led to many students working harder; and secondly making students more vocal and demanding about what they receive - putting pressure on universities to up their game. Actually that is very positive, as is the greater sense of responsibility and ownership that you see from students in terms of their involvement in how higher education is delivered, for example through student participation in quality assurance processes.

RAISE GRADUATE RETIREMENT AGE FOR GRADUATES

"There is a very simple and equitable solution to university funding. Raise the retirement age of graduates. Statistically, graduates live longer, so it makes sense to raise their retirement age. The money saved would go to fund universities." Huw, UK

It is pretty clear that demographic pressure means raising the retirement age - perhaps beyond what the government is already committed too - is pretty inevitable. Whether you could distinguish between graduates and non-graduates in the retirement age is an interesting question. Perhaps this is something we will see debated before long. I certainly agree that one of the great advantages of being a graduate is in the kind of choice you have about how your career develops. I am generalising, but if you think about the toll that manual occupations take on the body and compare that with the relative ease of desk-based white collar jobs, you can begin to see perhaps one of the reasons why graduates tend to be healthier and live longer than non-graduates.

FREE TUITION FOR BRITISH NATIONALS

"Education to degree level should be free to all British Nationals. A commitment to work for the UK for a period of years after qualification to recoup the country's investment should be established." Philip Dennis, Doncaster

As I have said, higher education was never free. Someone pays. The question is whether the whole cost of higher education should be borne by the general taxpayer - which means, to put it crudely, the postmen or women paying for the investment banker's education; or whether it is fair to ask those who benefit from higher education to contribute to the costs, which means sharing the costs between the taxpayer (who benefits from the contribution graduates make to the economy and to public service, such as health) and graduates themselves. That's the principle we support. What you can't say is that neither should have to pay - and in the context of cuts in public funding what I think would be a disaster is if we allow our universities to be steadily degraded. They are currently one of the jewels in the UK's crown - second only to the US by a variety of measures. It would be extremely short sighted not to continue to invest in them.

SHORTER COURSES

"Degrees should be allowed to be completed in two years. If a student wishes to do this holidays should be optional or phased out. Weekends are sufficient "time off" particularly as teaching/tutor time is so minimal. Offer incentives for students not to move away from home to go university. It is becoming a privilege to be able to do this." Jane Heap, Bath

Actually there has been quite a lot of experimentation in this area recently, with a number of attempts to pilot two-year degrees. Some of these have proved problematic - for reasons such as low student demand and funding constraints. Research published by HEFCE in 2006, for example, found that there was "very little interest [among potential and current students] in a two-year mode of study" and a "strong preference for three-year over two-year degrees". This preference was partly due to the unfamiliarity of the accelerated degree, but also due to very practical reasons such as students needing to use the current long summer vacation in the three-year degree programme to earn money to support themselves for the rest of the year. However, I think this kind of course will evolve as universities develop flexible type of higher education to suit a variety of demands. I would speculate, however, that accelerated two-year degrees will be an extremely high pressure qualification which would only be suitable for very particular kinds of student.

MORE EMPHASIS ON SKILLS

"Why not slash the number of pointless courses and get more school leavers out learning skills and trades. Sure, university can be enriching in many ways but degrees have become commonplace and for many jobs should not be necessary. Employers, of course, exacerbate the problem by stipulating a 'degree or equivalent' is desirable, even for elementary, non-vocational jobs or apprenticeships. Not every school leaver needs to go to university! Many of the top wealth creators in this country did not go to university. Let's get some sense back in the system and give the taxpayer a break!" Brian M, Hampton

Of course not every school leaver needs to go to university. Currently about 43% of 18 to 30-year-olds progress to higher education. That means the majority don't. Economic evidence suggests we need more, rather than fewer, graduates. That's the message from business, and from detailed studies of the evidence, for example by Lord Leitch and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. We should also bear in mind that we are in an age of fierce global competition. We simply will not be able to compete on the basis of low-skills with countries where wages are lower. Our only hope of remaining one of the world's major economies is by moving up the value chain, developing new products and services, innovating and staying ahead of the competition in places like China, India and Brazil. The alternative is a slow economic decline - and that would affect the quality of life of all of us - graduates and non graduates alike.

DISTANCE LEARNING

"As most degree courses consist of lectures by learned professors and students doing their own research and study with help from a tutor, why don't the government set up links from a few prestigious universities so that students from all over the UK can 'attend' lectures in local 'halls of learning'? Ninety percent of research can be done online and local tutors would be available to assist further." Charles Pirie, Lisburn, Northern Ireland

There is a lot in this suggestion. Already a large number of universities are making learning materials - including podcasts of lectures - freely available. Of course higher education is about more than sitting in a lecture hall, and even where it is delivered online, there is an element of personal and group tuition, guidance and of course, feedback. Most experience of online higher education points to a need to combine virtual and some face-to-face contact. But this is an area which is developing fairly rapidly as new technologies appear. Our own Open University is obviously a world-leader in this field.