Tuition fee changes are problematic in so many ways

Irony was not lost on me reading a recent article in Standpoint magazine by Jonathan Bate, on the “costly idea of a new university”. Jeremy Bentham – whose name has been used by the room I’m sitting in, while it is occupied by UCL students – was used as an example of someone with a fine mind, but whose impact “was minimal”. The point being that out of this great mind, the world has seen relatively small returns, if you were to consider that on the back of book sales. This was not an original point, nor was it meant to be. John Stuart Mill had been the one to observe this, yet whether he made this a way of justifying further marketising further education, like Bate seemed to be attempting to do, is anyone’s guess – though I’m not going to bank on it.

The article advances the view that not everyone is entitled to higher education. For Bate, unlike junior and senior levels of education or other provisions such as healthcare, it is not cost-effective to have it as a free for all. Not only do we need plumbers – who seem to be exemplified as a low skilled, uneducated worker in Bate’s article – but the amount of money, in the form of public taxation, going into the further education system will not be nearly as beneficial as some would want to make out.

Bate notes that the proportion of young people in higher education has risen, as if this fact were a direct correlation on the drop in manual labourers. He kindly allows for the public understanding that society benefits from degree educated professionals such as doctors – but generally the article misses the entire point. Top-up fees for Bate, as well as for both the Labour and Tory parties (at least), represents the proportion of money the government should not have to pay, on account that better considered degrees – such as in medicine – are worth far more, in addition to the amount universities can’t/won’t afford to pay, since caps have been put on all higher education study – which is made up for in larger classes and less one-on-one time.

One of the perverse effects of the rise in tuition fees, according to Birkbeck Professsor Claire Callender, is that the more financial aid a university has to fork out for an individual student – accounting for the decreasing amount government has to put in – the less attractive the student is for a university. The issue of free higher education for all who want it is of course very important, but moreover, in a system where the amount of top up fees a prospective student can pay decides on whether that person is financially solvent for the university is extremely problematic. For Callender, this represents the current model of US higher education.

The initial problematic remains; the marketisation of university will mean prospective students choose subjects on a utilitarian basis – what will be the most enticing for employers, or rather, what prospective students imagine will be most enticing for employers – rather than universities being institutions of knowledge. Taking grant cuts into consideration, humanities and art subjects will become fewer, this will start to impact upon research in this area, and Britain’s importance on an international scale will become stagnant. But furthermore students will feel less inclined to get themselves into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in universities that aren’t in the upper deciles, institutions will merge, the less lucky ones will fold. This is in addition to how much debt an individual student can expect to be in after their course, which will crush any chance of a future savings culture of any worth – lest I mention the scrapped child trust fund.

This move, supported by most Ministers in the government, has many implications and consequences. Tonight student movements around the country will be making final adjustments to their work before Parliament goes to vote tomorrow. This work will include ringing the parliamentary offices of noted MPs, writing letters to newspapers, pressuring universities’ management to condemn the cuts agenda, and the war the government is waging on higher education institutions in general. Tomorrow is of course a day of action – it is the determination of this movement – composed of many who will not be directly affected by the changes to fees – which proves the urgency to take a stand against proposed changes.

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