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Payback time

universities2University tuition fees are based on the assumption that graduates will become high-flying hotshots earning megabucks. But that’s not always the case, says James Gill

A week ago, you may have read my article There Will Be Greed: Reflections on the Financial Crisis, in which I expounded much criticism of the laissez-faire, devil-may-care style of economics which has been a staple of the past twenty five years of public life.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) noted that the banking industry had not learned the lessons of the fragile economic system from the recession, continuing to hand out multi-million bonuses amongst themselves (the most noteworthy being Barclays CEO, Bob Diamond, seemingly convinced that bonuses are part of a vital way of attracting ‘talent’ to banking) while governments continue to encourage lending via fiscal stimulus’ alongside cuts to many dimensions of public spending.

The lessons are brought closer to home more disturbingly through a recent announcement by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that students should pay more in student loans – appropriately, the competitive market price – and receive less money in the form of student grants from the government.

James Gill

James Gill

It’s alarming that the tentacles of ruthless, dog-eat-dog economics have wriggled their way into institutions which should not serve the public as a value-for-money competitive luxury provider based on your ability to pay, rather universities are a universal choice for students of various backgrounds to enjoy further education and training towards a goal/career which should not be dictated by income levels.

An important epoch for the expansion of the principle of universal university education were the 1960s creation and establishment of Warwick, York, Essex, Sussex and Kent universities (since gone on to become some of the most reputable universities in the country) and the Open University (then the University of the Air); and the 1992 conversion of many polytechnics into universities in their own right, for example Kingston, Liverpool John Moores, De Montford Leicester and Southampton Solent University.

The establishment of these institutions instituted a greater choice for students who couldn’t attain places at the halls of Oxbridge, St Andrews and the LSE, effectively creating a larger stake hold in public life for those who were not able otherwise to attain any.

However, that dream is in danger of being extinguished by the desire for increases in the already controversial fee of £3225 (increasing by a tiny amount) per annum. The CBI went even further, declaring that ambitions for a larger intake on students should be cut, focusing instead on assisting and improving the institutions’ competitiveness.

Supporting voices for the fees are echoed by some of the universities’ own administrators, notably Oxford’s Chris Patten, UCL’s Malcolm Grant and York’s Brian Cantor, as well as the heads of the Russell and 1994 groups of universities, are calling for the cap on tuition fees to be lifted, enabling universities to charge fees competitively, while providing subsidies for less well off students.

While the subsidy part seems genuine in good intention, the fee amounts won’t shrug off the feeling that university has become a selective rich man’s game, which questions of the validity of one’s degree.

Although a student at one of the 1994 Group of universities, York, and an admirer of the very high standards of the Russell Group of universities, I think it is a raw shame that a group of respected and influential people are still trying to push this harsh agenda at a time when students need more security than ever in the search for jobs and education, even shifting a focus onto a select group of subjects, notably STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), at the expense of many other rewarding courses.

Thankfully, the Million+ group of post-1992 universities alongside the National Union of Students (NUS) have vigorously opposed these proposals, seeing them as anathema to the aims of a higher education for students, especially in the middle of a recession. The Million+ group said the ideas are “the wrong approach in a recession which has already caused one million young people to be unemployed”.

Wes Streeting, NUS President, said “At a time of economic crisis, when many hard-working families are struggling to support their offspring through university, I am astonished that the CBI should be making such offensive recommendations.”

Encouraging market-based changes such as these could result in a dangerous elite division between the Russell/1994 groups of universities and the Million+ group, creating a double standard of higher education based on high wealth as well as fuelling the stereotype that you need only go to the more established, ‘prestigious’ universities in order to get to a reputable job such as becoming an MP, banker, lawyer or doctor.

It effectively creates a UK equivalent of the Ivy League system where universities such as Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Massachusetts’ Institute of Technology (MIT) all charge immediate fees of around $30,000 dollars per annum, with a few lucky less affluent students arriving on scholarship, while their state universities lie at the bottom of the academic food chain.

These business proposals might repeat that process for the UK reinforcing a wealth divide that is already complained about in the primary and secondary school spheres that should not be applied to those seeking to enhance their capabilities to achieve their chosen profession.

Although tuition fees do not need to be paid back instantly – my £10,000 fee debt from my three years at York (and a prior brief spell at Queen Mary), with additional student loans too, will be taxed off me monthly when I finally get a £15,000 per annum job – the thought of having to be charged up to an estimated £10,000 per year to attend university is immensely discouraging to those of less well off backgrounds who are hesitant and insecure about the merits of attending university.

Once again, the argument of the pro-higher fee figureheads tends to rest on the theory that a university degree will automatically grant one a job in an excellent sector such as aforementioned business and law.

However, not all students are interested in the heavy thrift and competition of the high flying enterprise sector, preferring a less hectic job, but one where they are guaranteed happiness and good pay, not based on eternal market competition.

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