Tuition Fees

Well there has been a lot of talk about possible increases in university tuition fees recently, with the newly elected (!) coalition government considering lifting the cap on the charges that universities are allowed to make.

As someone who went through university in Scotland when there the tuition fees were covered by the government for domestic students I thought I’d publish some of my thoughts on the matter.

Clearly we have a problem in the UK with sustaining the current level of ‘studentship’ in the country. When I was at university there were probably about 15-20% of school-leavers who went to university whereas now it’s reckoned to be somewhere around 45%. So why are there so many more university students?

Well you have to go back quite some time to see how things have changed.

Back in the 80s there was a distinction between universities and other establishments like the colleges of technology and the polytechnics. The mechanisms for funding were different and they were effectively managed in a different way. In 1992, under the Further and Higher Education Act, all that changed. The polytechnics and colleges of technology became universities and the whole system or funding an administration was adjusted. This also affected colleges of further education.

In 1997, under the Labour government, students started to be required to make a contribution towards their tuition fees. Since 1962 under the Conservative government, until that point, local education authorities had been required to fund the tuition fees for university students. That requirement had meant that, irrespective of your family background or wealth, you could still go to university. It was a massive investment in education and in the country’s future.

Unfortunately, since the late 90s, there have been other changes and it seems to me that there is now a need for school leavers to go on to university or be treated as a failure. This has been encouraged by successive governments who have unemployment figures to worry about; clearly by increasing student numbers you can reduce unemployment figures and make the country look as if it’s doing better.

It appears that these policies have now hit a critical point where it just can’t be sustained.

Furthermore I believe that this expansion of university education has come by a dumbing down of university education. I don’t want to appear elitist, arrogant or anything like that, but it concerns me that you can now get degrees in a large number of subjects that were previously considered as more vocational, or perhaps would be learnt about under apprenticeships schemes. A particularly interesting point about those sort of qualifications though is that very often those qualifications would be gained by attending colleges of further education part-time while working for an employer who paid the fees for that training.

There are many, many jobs that you need to be educated to do, but not necessarily by gaining a degree. One example is nursing; I know a great many nurses who have gone through training and come out with e.g. a diploma and who are very good nurses yet it seems now that the rules have changed and you need a degree. Why? Does this devalue the ability of those nurses who do not have degrees? Is that a good thing? I don’t really think so. The way nursing works you’re expected to carry out regular professional development so why would you need to spend so much learning time up front? Surely you’re going to learn more about nursing by actually doing the job, you know, like the old way, instead of spending extra time in a classroom!

I’ve also been thinking recently, and you may not agree, that it’s not unreasonable to hypothesise that the increase in degree qualified people has directly contributed to a dearth of skilled labour in this country, to the extent that the country has had to import foreign workers to carry out many of the roles previously carried out by people who chose not to, or did not qualify to go to university, such as plumbers, builders and so on.

We need to have a mix of academic and practical people for the country to succeed. A university education is clearly not suitable for everyone so why does there seem to be so much belief that going to university (and ending up in masses of debt) is the “done thing”? Going to university certainly does not make you better than someone who doesn’t go, just different, and I think those differences should continue in order for society to benefit from diversity. We really don’t need a high proportion of graduates ending up on the dole because their degrees that don’t actually qualify them to do any particular type of work.

Funding of universities is an investment in the future of the country; we need to continue to encourage the most academic school-leavers to go on to further education because that is often the place where new technologies are developed. If you expect the students to pay then you will return to the ‘dark ages’ where only the rich, and not necessarily the most appropriate, people could afford to go to university.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are not so academic but also have great ideas. As long as their skills are channeled in the right direction, there’s no reason why those people cannot be very successful but is channeling them through pointless university courses the right way to do that? I don’t think so.

Ultimately we do have a big problem, but I think it needs a far more fundamental shift back to restoring the difference between academic and practical knowledge, and how that knowledge is gained, than just effectively forcing more and more young people in to massive debt.

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