Naked Politics Blogger
“The Beautiful thing about education is that no one can take it away from you” – BB King
The class of 2012 will be acutely aware that the current Conservative government is no stranger to courting controversy when it comes to higher education. In 2012, the then coalition trebled tuition fees to an eye-watering £9,000 a year, and this January scrapped the student maintenance – a grant given to students from low-income families to help them pay for university life – without a commons vote.
Earlier this week, the government once set higher education in its sights, releasing a white paper outlining a series of measures that would make significant changes to the higher education system as we know it. The implications of these proposals are controversial to say the least.
The key measures are as follows: the current cap on tuition fees at £9,000 per academic year shall be removed, allowing tuition fees to rise with inflation and allowing certain, strongly performing universities to charge more for tuition. Furthermore, the new legislation will allow space for new, private higher education institutions to enter the education market. So it could be entirely possible to be enrolled at the McDonalds School of Economics and Political Science in a few years’ time.
Both universities and ministers have defended the proposals. For instance, the Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson has stated that “[o]ur universities are engines of economic growth and social mobility, but if we are to remain competitive and ensure that a high-quality education remains open to all, we cannot stand still…Making it easier for high-quality challenger institutions to start offering their own degrees will help drive up teaching quality, boost the economy and extend aspiration and life chances for students from all backgrounds.” Furthermore, Martin Doel, CEO of the Association of Colleges stated that: “Students, colleges and employers will welcome these plans, which mean more opportunities for people to access the most suitable and best value higher education courses. This is a particular benefit for those who are employed and want to study part-time.”
However the government measures should be deeply concerning for students and demonstrate a gross misunderstanding as to what education really is.
At the current rate of interest, today’s students will in debt to the tune of nearly £50,000 by 2020. This is double the average debt of students in America. A report from the Sutton Trust estimates that the majority of students will be paying back this debt even until their 50’s. Neither lenient repayment schemes nor statistics demonstrating that more students are attending university since the rise can justify this simply obscene level of ubiquitous debt amongst our young adults. With this in mind, the government’s proposal to remove this cap and potentially saddle future generations of students with even more debt, is patently unfair and unethical. Almost invariably, this eye-watering level of debt is going to penalise students from lower income families and disadvantaged backgrounds most acutely. Without the means to pay off these debts early on, a whole generation of students face a decrease in real wages, diminished prospects for home ownership and reduced capital. All because they committed the crime of going to university. The result will be a deeper, more entrenched inequality stretched over a generation.
However notwithstanding the above, there is a deeper issue at play here. Allowing private companies firms to start their own higher education institutions may result in greater choice, better value for money and an increase in teacher quality. It may well do. I don’t deny it. Only time will tell. However, as reflected in terminology such as ‘remain competitive’, ‘boost economic growth’ and ‘value for money’ – there appears to be a fundamental poverty of understanding as to what education actually is in the new proposals. The notion that higher education needs to become more ‘competitive’, or provide ‘value for money’, or that the best universities should be allowed to charge more, is indicative of a conceptualisation of education as a commodity. Something universities offer as a service provider to its customers, and as with all commodities, you get what you pay for.
Education is not a commodity however. Education is an opportunity. It is a right. By placing further financial barriers and penalties on prospective students and advocating a ‘pay what you get for’ system, the government appear to have forgotten this primordial fact.
These reforms will likely transform the higher education system as we know it, and initial analysis indicates that it won’t be for the better. If the government think that passing this legislation is going to be plain sailing, they need to think again. Students Unions – a typically uncompromising and ferocious tribe – will fight tooth and nail to derail these new measures, as will many of the 2.2 million students currently studying in the UK. It could be a fight of a magnitude to rival that of the junior doctors debacle. For its own sake and the sake of the millions of bright young minds in the UK, the government need to reconsider these proposals.