Tuition fees are going to rise and it’s something we’re just going to have to accept. Some people are going to run round Westminster with placards shouting slogans but it’s not worth the effort: you’re just going to be beaten up by the friendly people from the police tactical support unit and nobody’s going to bat an eyelid because somebody got in the way of some couple in a fancy car.
My position is not the result of a belief that higher fees will help reduce the deficit, but that too many people have been going to university in recent years. The rise in fees will mean that fewer people will go to university, but this is not all bad news because it means that those who do go will study more worthwhile degrees. It will also be easier for employers to pinpoint stronger candidates when the supply of graduates reduces.
The underlying question here is “why do people go to university?” There are two reasons: firstly, to expand their knowledge and to become well-rounded individuals through academia and life experiences; the second is to become more economically valuable – meaning you have access to better job opportunities. What higher tuition fees mean is that there will be a shift toward the latter reason. People picking universities by the quality of the nightlife will be a thing of the past.
People will therefore think a lot harder when they choose their course, and whether they want to go to university at all. Students will need to be confident that they will earn significantly more than they would if they did a different subject or took a different career path.
Say your dream was to be a music journalist and you had a few A-levels. Prior to the fee rise you’d probably quite happily take on a few thousand pounds of debt and have a great time doing Anglia Ruskin’s Popular Music BA degree. Your opportunities probably would not have changed all that much since leaving college but now you have a degree, so if this was 2004 you could probably get job in another industry if things did not work out. Now, however, with the job market considerably smaller and more competitive, you’d be far more reluctant to do a degree which may not give any great advantage in the world of work.
So, it is likely that fewer people will choose to go to university, which is sad but not catastrophic. It is essential to consider how the government thinks about universities. As students, we think of them as institutions of learning and self-discovery, but the government sees them as a mechanism to make British workers more productive. The government needs to consider the national interest – and frankly it’s not in the national interest to have thousands of Media Studies graduates.
The fact is that too many people go to university, and the cuts will change this. They will not, however, establish a suitable alternative to university education. A-levels are not a suitable qualification for employers to use to distinguish between candidates because the standards are pretty dire, hence the huge number of people needing to go to university. Not wanting to sound like a grumpy old man here, but it may be beneficial to take a step backwards and give some consideration to improving vocational education. Technical colleges may be the answer, though the cuts will mean they are not going to make a rapid comeback.
Mr Cameron is right to say that fees are not up-front costs and therefore not crippling. The problem with the tuition fees debate is that too many other arguments and issues have become entwined in it; people have stopped thinking about why fees are being increased. The Liberal Democrats breaking a pre-election pledge, cuts to humanities funding and general government cuts have blurred the issue somewhat. The BBC did a good job of picking out protestors from the crowds who said they would not be able to go university if fees were higher which just shows the confusion that has been caused.
Higher fees should not stop people going to university; it will just make them think much harder before they do. It is the cuts in funding to institutions which will not be able to attract students once fees are higher which is going to be the real problem. Essentially if you do fancy going down to London to protest – think again. Fight the cuts not the fees.