Coming over all left wing

A couple of events have happened which have made me wonder if perhaps I am coming over all left-wing. Perhaps it’s the pregnancy hormones? I am not a tribal Labour voter.

Firstly,this proposed hike in tuition fees. According to reports leaked this weekend, Lord Browne’s report into the funding of Universities, is likely to recommend that the upper limit on tuition fees is scrapped, meaning that most universities are likely to double their fees to £7,000 per annum with the top universities charging even more, thereby creating a market in University education.

I cannot begin to express quite how apoplectic this makes me. This is not simply because it is likely that I will be directly affected, as the University I attend is in the 94 Group of Universities. Nor is it simple jealousy that those who directly benefited from  subsidised state Higher Education are raising the barriers to entry, imposing huge amounts of debts on graduates, they themselves never had to face. That admittedly grates a little, but clearly university funding is an issue, the money needs to be found from somewhere and it is in my opinion, only fair that students should contribute to the cost of their education, given that they will be set to benefit financially from it.

As a current student I feel deeply fortunate not only to be studying a subject that I have a passion for, but also to be studying at an excellent university with a high standard of teaching and resources. I feel very privileged and do not object to having to contribute in some way. There is no point harking back to the days when Higher Education was free at the point of delivery, the system has radically altered beyond all recognition, the numbers of those going to university has doubled and thus this needs to be paid for. I do believe that there is a side issue here in that many of the degrees on offer at some of the institutions, combinations as bizarre as “Popular Music and Eygptology” to name just one, are of questionable value in today’s competitive workforce. Indeed one of our lecturers said to us only last week, “you students have it tougher than any other previous generation. Not only are you coming out loaded with debt, but whereas when we studied it was expected to be a three year break between the world of school and the world of work, almost a “holiday”, you are expected to be gaining skills that are going to effectively prepare you for the world of work, make you competitive, whereas we only needed to worry about our academic work, as opposed to gaining a rounded CV with relevant experience.”

I have gone back into Higher Education because I want to teach and despite my excellent A Levels and extensive experience, I am not deemed intelligent or knowledgeable enough to embark straight on a teacher-training course. I need a specialised degree first. A BEd was not on offer at my local university, and I figured that if I was going to have to commit the next three years of my life to study, then I might as well do it in a subject which I enjoyed and one which might prove flexible. The amount of debt I will leave with is more than a little daunting; I will probably earn less as a teacher than I did in my previous professional life, however teaching is not traditionally a career that one enters into for purely financial gain. This is something I feel very strongly about. How on earth is teaching going to attract high calibre graduates who have been to the top universities, if the cap on tuition fees is removed and a trainee teacher is embarking upon a career with at least £21 K in debt?

Furthermore, this hike in tuition fees is going to create a two tier university system whereby the poorest students will be deterred both from going to university and also from going to the top institutions. This is already a problem. Although many people vehemently disagree with some of the measures implemented by the top universities, actually, giving those students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds redresses the imbalances inherent in our flawed education system. Of course a privately educated pupil is going to do infinitely better than a pupil of the same academic ability, who does not have the same advantages. Of course someone who goes to, for example, Brighton College, is going to achieve fantastic results, given the amount of resources and opportunities that going to that school affords them, not to mention the fact that presumably they have middle class, high achieving parents who actively take an interest in their child’s education. Whereas someone who goes to a failing comprehensive is simply not going to have the same resources or opportunities and will have to work harder, overcome far more obstacles than his privately educated peer. This is why universities have been attempting to put some more fairness back into the system and grant places to those who perhaps have achieved lower grades than the standard 6As these days, recognising that the candidate’s grades are not reflective of ability or potential. Such social engineering has attracted much controversy, particularly from those who feel that their privately educated children are being penalised, however these pupils are still likely to have successful outcomes in life, even if they have not attained the heights of Oxbridge.

We have no social mobility in this country, none. This is something I feel passionately about. It is getting harder and harder for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to escape the poverty trap. We have an education system predominantly based on cash, either in terms of private school fees or whether or not parents may afford to move into a better catchment area, and if a parent is lucky, there may be a decent faith school. That is not to run down all state schools, far from it, but they face many more challenges than the private sector, particularly schools located in run-down inner city areas. Therefore for many, university may be their only chance to achieve some sort of social mobility, to be able to qualify for teaching or nursing or a job in the financial sector or whatever, and yet most will be deterred by significant tuition fees and the prospect of huge debts hanging over their heads for years to come.

The top universities who charge unlimited fees will only attract those who are able to afford it by means of their parents. As for mature students, those who for whatever reason went straight into vocational work and now wish to advance their career; their options will also be limited as will those wishing to study for further degrees such as Masters or Doctorates, which in the long-term will not do much to advance the cause of research and academia in this country. I was one of the lucky ones in terms of opportunity. I didn’t go to university for various reasons when I was eighteen, something I have bitterly regretted ever since. Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department runs Foundation Courses in various subjects, specifically aimed at mature students wishing to enter Higher Education. You do the first year of an Oxford undergraduate degree split part-time over two years, then advance straight into the second year, providing you pass with good enough results, of a full-time degree. Entry to the course is purely on ability, one has to submit an essay and attend an interview, where, in my case, literary interests were discussed as well as a piece of unseen prose. I worked extremely hard, fitting this in around 2 part-time jobs, juggling a newborn baby and commuting to Oxford once a week. I attended the bare minimum of lectures simply to get me through and was offered a full-time place starting in the second year. It was unfeasible to accept, my family commitments are on the South Coast, but the financial aspects didn’t come into play, my local university costing exactly the same in terms of fees. Faced with fees of up to £15K a year, then this would have been totally out of the question, not only for me, but for all the other mature students who were on the same course, many of whom were weighing up the prospect of whether or not they would be able to afford, not only to stop working, but also whether or not it would be fair on their families to take on such a huge amount of debt.

I digress, but the lifting of the cap on fees is sheer madness and creates yet more inequality of opportunity, which is something that I passionately believe in. I don’t believe that every child should be forced to follow exactly the same prescriptive curriculum, I believe that there should be diversity, with the caveat that basic skills such as Maths and English are learnt, but it seems to me grossly unfair that one child should have the opportunity of learning Latin or Greek, or modern languages, or get a good grounding in Bible stories (vital for English Lit) and yet another should be denied an identical opportunity.

And this comes from one who is fortunate enough to have a daughter attend a private school. My other children won’t have the same opportunity, but that does not mean that I should deny it to her. Plus all my children are lucky in that they have interested, educated, intelligent and informed parents. Our house is overflowing with books, we don’t have enough bookcases. I play the piano and violin, Robin sings and they are surrounded by music and laughter. Regardless of where they go to University they’ll be fine, although I doubt we’ll be able to subsidise them through a top one.

It just seems to me, that a graduate tax or a means tested system would be the fairer by far. To charge unlimited fees keeps the highest academic achievement as being solely the preserve of the rich and privileged and denies the opportunity to thousands of others. It is those who have reached the top, kicking the ladder away for the others, or maybe that’s the point?

My other issue, children as being a “lifestyle choice”. Benefits being capped according to the number of children one has. People who object to benefits being given according to need. But that’s for another day. In the meantime, keep the red flag flying comrades.

2 thoughts on “Coming over all left wing

  1. I couldn’t agree more. My elder daughter (b 1963) embarked on her degree with no idea of what she wanted to do but we encouraged her in spite of having nine younger children. She returned three years later with a debt of £72! She worked in HR before her marriage but when she realised that she might one day need to be the breadwinner she was able to study for her PGCE in one year while her two boys were at school. What a blessing she did, as she now has to support two teenagers virtually alone.
    Our younger daughter (b 1983) achieved three good A levels but wouldn’t even consider higher education because she didn’t want to end up with a massive debt which she might not be able to repay. Happily she is about to begin a course sponsored by her employer; she will be able to continue working and her fees are paid in part by her company. Perhaps the answer is to send fewer people to University and encourage more vocational training; it seems to work in other countries.

  2. The sad legacy of the previous government’s desire to get such a high percentage of school-leavers into higher education is that a degree has become an absolute baseline for getting any sort of decent job, like O-levels were about 30-40 years ago. There are so many people with a degree that they have become utterly devalued. Consequently, the people want to secure a job with reasonable prospects not only have to take on monstrous debt to obtain the degree, they are pretty much forced to take on an extra chunk of debt for post-graduate degrees that might just give them the edge in an overcrowded job market, funding for which, as I spent many years finding out to my cost, is rarer than hens’ teeth. My two youngest are 13 and 11 and, viewing the prospect from within the system, I’m most pessimistic about the state higher education will be in by the time they are looking at university.

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