Contrary to the committed vigour of many of the student protesters over the past few weeks, I've been tentative and uncertain in gathering my own thoughts on the tuition fees proposals, doubting my instinct to view the proposals with horror. The Browne review reads somewhat sensibly … Either way we are paying for our degrees through taxation and – essentially – does our country have any choice?
I didn't agree with some of the banners flying at the demonstration the other week, which seemed to make crude political simplifications: the kind of rhetoric that marks the "good" people (students, the working class) from the "bad" people (banks, corporations, politicians), as if it was ever that simple. And I am not entirely convinced that direct action, especially when it tends towards violence, is helpful.
But I've gradually talked, read and thought my way all round the issues back to my initial convictions.
I feel so sad to think that we are about to lose what I regard as one of the country's most wonderful and enviable assets. I have always been proud when I tell my American friends how little going to university in the UK costs (at least compared with the American system); that there is relative equality of opportunity because all universities and courses cost the same amount; that had I not been fortunate enough to get plucked "from obscurity" (whatever that obscure word means) and thrown into the surreal world of dresses and dollars I could still, from my modest background, have aspired to a higher education at one of the best universities in the world.
Proponents of the cuts argue that these changes will not marginalise children and students from poorer backgrounds as there will be no upfront fees and debts will not be implemented until graduates earn more than £21,000. Any outstanding debt will also be erased after 30 years; so some graduates may never have to pay back all or even any of their debt. However, the psychological implications of taking on a debt of perhaps £40,000 will likely affect students from low-income families in a much more significant way, turning them away from the more expensive courses and universities, or putting them off going at all.
A more privatised system may improve education standards (the proponents argue) but not if the universities have reduced budgets (which the universities argue they will). Privatisation will also likely affect which degrees students choose to do, and where they choose to study, based on the variable course prices and the implications said courses have for earning after they graduate. Clive Stafford Smith, of human rights group Reprieve, points out that the margins of debt repayment (starting at £21,000) will deter many from pursuing low-paid but meaningful and important work. Students will have a disincentive for doing something really positive. Do we need more corporate lawyers and bankers?
Making the finance of education an individual, rather than social responsibility, undermines the value of education to the country and the economy, and also means that every British graduate henceforward is obligated to embark on their adult lives with the oppression and responsibility of a large debt. Isn't a culture of debt the thing we are trying to move away from?
Of course, it is complex and I'm not trying to suggest that I have the answers. But when we start cutting, isn't it a question of priorities? Isn't there a better alternative and ought it not be explored first?
Among the various alternative proposals I've heard of to fund education, perhaps my favourite comes from my very wise old politics teacher, who suggests changing the system altogether to make state funded degrees less of a burden on the state without compromising the equality of opportunity. His proposal is that everyone is entitled to a free degree: two years aged 25, and another year aged 45. A few years of life experience in between might cause a smaller proportion of people to go, and perhaps make them more certain of what they want to study if they do.
"After over a decade of education it might be best if young people go to work at 17/18, understand the kind of jobs around in the real world, earn some money, sort out adolescent emotional problems like the difference between lust and love without academic distraction. At about 24 they could take up an entitlement to two years of further education – something academic maybe like literature or history where a few years of life experience gives more insight.
Something vocational if they are already on a career path and ambitious. Improving on their school grades now they see their necessity for employability. You might end up with more plumbers and engineers?
Twenty years later they get a further one-year entitlement. Academic break from career? Time for reflection – philosophy, art, literature, history? Need to change the course of life? Family grown up, divorce? They'd get vocational retraining in a rapidly changing/expiring world."
You see, it's not that I think everyone necessarily needs a degree, or that a degree makes you a better person. As many people have pointed out, the Labour policy several years ago to try to get half the country into higher education just created lots of redundant degrees, and unemployed graduates, while placing a huge burden on the state financially and huge pressure on oversubscribed universities. But for the people who do want to pursue higher education I think it should remain an equally attainable possibility – one not determined by their finances.
This article was published by the Guardian in 2010.