In the aftermath of Thursday night’s vote, tax-payers and employers will be left scratching their heads, along with parents and students, as to what the long-term ramifications of tuition fee increases will be. My English Literature degree has stood me in good stead – but I look back on my time at Loughborough University and wonder, had I paid £9000 a year for tuition for my measly 6 hours per week (in a 32 week year), each lecture would work out at a whopping £46. Would my University education come at a price worth paying?
If students are to be consumers then they will start acting like consumers, and demand more education for their money. If they don’t feel like they are getting value from it, then they simply won’t go, and we will be left with an economy unable to compete in a globalised market. Like candidates up and down the country, in the run up to the 2010 election I toured local sixth forms gauging the opinions of first-time voters.
The format was simple: each student would arrive armed with one policy idea, they would write them down, submit them, and the best ones would be put to the group for debate. The most popular policies were to be published in the ‘Young People’s Manifesto’, launched the week prior to the election.
I wasn’t surprised to see a level-headed, calm, intelligent and rational response from sixth-formers to the tuition fees debate – a mature reaction that would put the thuggish minority of protesters to shame. Not one school believed that University tuition should be free. Almost all students understood that University is an expensive business, and felt quite sincerely that they should have to pay something towards their education.
But it was clear also that there was a limit, not necessarily to what they were prepared to pay, but what they could realistically afford to pay. Never mind the cap on fees, a cap on aspiration is what is at stake.
During my visit to my old school in Thirsk, a young man of around 14 stopped me in the corridor:
“How much did you pay to go to Uni?” I replied:
“£1000 a year, plus living costs”
“And when will you have paid off your loan?” “In about another 3 years”.
He grimaced. If it will take me the better part of 10 years to pay off £12,000, how long would it take him to pay off £40,000? And was it really worth it? In a town where many people have a trade, and do just fine out of it, would University actually pay?
Once these questions creep into the minds of our teenagers, the strength of their aspiration diminishes and the potential of our future-economy weakens with it. As a country we don’t just want these bright, confident kids to go to University, we need them to.
Too much of this debate has been about altruism – the vague notion that ‘wouldn’t it be nice if more of us went to University?’ But Higher Education is not about altruism, it’s about economic pragmatism. We live in a competitive globalised economic environment, and that competition is getting fiercer by the day. If our economy is to survive, then we need today’s youngsters to become tomorrow’s business leaders, driving growth and creating jobs. We all have a stake in equipping these people with what they need to take the world on – and that is why Higher Education has, and should be funded predominantly by the taxpayer.
By placing graduates into debt of thirty, forty or fifty grand, we are making them question the very point of education, and we limit their ambition in the process. By discouraging young people from going to University, we do not just harm the ambition of the individual, we harm the potential of our economy.
David Cameron repeatedly blames the previous administration for forcing him to take this action. But whilst he is cutting the state budget by an average of 11%, he has chosen to cut the Higher Education teaching budget by a whopping 80%, asking our young directly to pick up the tab. He has not been forced down this path. He has chosen to take it.
Those against the tuition fee rises are making the message clear. Whoever or whatever is to blame for the economic situation, it is not the responsibility of our young people to bear the biggest burden of the deficit – be it immediately or post-graduation – and you don’t solve today’s problems by limiting tomorrow’s economy. That is what is at stake, and that is why the intellectual fight – not the physical fight – must go on.