Thursday, 9 July 2009

No fees for degrees?

The government is considering waiving tuition fees for students – on the condition that they do not receive government loans or means-tested bursaries.

It’s aimed at students who could stay at home with their parents while studying.

Is this the answer to the higher education cash crisis?

Erm, no.

There’s no doubt that the funding of higher education needs to be thoroughly revised. But you can’t quite shake the impression that this solution was scrawled on the back of a fag packet at a particularly poor brainstorming session at the Department for Universities and Skills.

Stop me if this starts to sound ludicrously idealistic and out of touch, but I think that when you choose a university, it should probably be on the basis that:

a) it’s good at teaching your subject, and

b) it’s an institution that will actually stretch and develop your intellectual capacity.

A university probably shouldn’t be chosen on the basis that “it’s cheap, and only 30 minutes from my mum’s house.”

Of course, that is the basis for many when choosing where to study. It’s understandable, considering the level of average student debt. But this proposal is hardly the step forward our higher education sector needs. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the disadvantages inherent in such a scheme.

It encourages students to choose their local university - regardless of whether it’s the most suitable place for them to study. (“My tutor says I could apply for Oxbridge, but I don’t think it’s worth my while. Plus I could save loads studying locally and living with my parents.”)

Moreover, this funding Shangri-La would exclude all those potential students who don’t live in or near a university city. Even those that do won’t necessarily have the family support or resources to study at home full time – fees or no fees.

The biggest single cost for most students is usually maintenance. With living costs soaring, the fee-free degree scheme is only going to be of interest to those students whose parents can afford to keep them at home while they study full-time. They also need to be sufficiently well-off that they can afford to forfeit getting a means-tested bursary or even a government loan.

This is hardly a state of affairs that will encourage the most deprived students to make the step up to higher education.

Despite excluding the poorest potential students right off the bat, the scheme would still succeed in creating a two-tier university experience.

On the one hand (if your parents have the money) you can go to an institution that excels at your subject at a place that suits your needs. On the other hand, if your parents haven’t got the cash… tough. But don’t worry - there’s a basket-weaving college near you, and you won’t have to pay fees for that! So stop moaning.

Universities aren’t schools. Teaching, research and syllabus specialisms vary enormously between institutions - to say nothing of huge differences in facilities, academic culture and social atmosphere. (These are pretty important differences if you’re going to be living, eating, working and sleeping there for three years or more).

Even the most utilitarian, Gradgrind-like education minister must accept that university is about more than just getting a degree - a piece of paper that tells employers that, despite appearances, you’re actually quite clever.

Most students - when not worrying about money - want to do what will further their academic and personal development. More often than not, this will be best achieved by studying at an institution that’s not on their doorstep.

Call me a bluff old traditionalist, but shouldn’t access to education be based on academic ability, rather than your geographic location or ability to pay?


Calix said...

I agree that this is no solution.

However, the situation already exists and many from poor backgrounds need to stay at home. Going away to University was always a luxury for the middle classes. However, when there was a grant for fees and living expenses (not a loan) it was possible to study away from home with no parental or family income.

Your last paragraph is rather hopeful that British education was ever based on merit above all else. At all levels a better education can be bought i.e. private schools or moving to a better catchment area. That's not to criticise much of the great work in state education, but just to recognize reality.

P.S. I'm a cynic like you, except perhaps even more cynical!

Rob said...

Universities aren’t schools.

Perhaps 15 years ago, they weren't. But these days, university is just what you do after A-levels.

Paul Prowse said...

Calix: I'd argue that university isn't a luxury - higher education is a crucial source of social, economic and individual development. And cheap beer.

Yes, a better education can be bought in our society. But at least everyone of school age receives an education (admittedly of varying quality). Too many people who are capable of higher education never get the chance to receive it.

That said, I think the government’s target of getting 50% of young adults to university by 2010 was flawed. Generally, it’s led to wider middle class saturation of higher education - flooding many universities with students who aren’t really suited to it. University isn’t for everyone. There’s no point funneling people through the system for the sake of it.

Our focus should be on reaching those who would thrive in higher education, but for whom it simply isn’t an option - as they don’t have the resources to realistically enter it.

John said...

They should either introduce a progressive graduate tax. Or progressively increase income tax, since 77% of 11-16 year olds intend to go to university, and plenty of adults do adult apprenticeships and training courses free of charge.

Calix said...

I meant 'going away to university' not 'going to university': 'away' being the key word - sorry about the confusion. I agree University is far more than a luxury, but I intended to say that the reality of living away from home has always been much more widely taken up by the middle classes for economic reasons.

I'm a classic case - I loved going away to University and believe it helped me develop as a person, but I would have found it very hard without financial backing from my family. I may have had no choice but to suffer in Kettering college!