Three cheers for those rejecting University

Middlesex University from

As a parent, as a supporter of education and on principle I disagreed with the decision to charge tuition fees. However, I don’t see it as the end of the world and it could just be the making of many of our young people regardless of whether they choose to apply for higher education. The unholy alliance between Michael Gove and the Liberal Democrats may, via bungled cost-cutting, have fallen backwards into an excellent decision.

I went to University at a time when only the top 5% went. This wasn’t the Golden Age that some people claim to remember in my opinion. Certainly places were limited and grades required were challenging. I decided to try and become an Accountant; I’d heard the money was good and my father was a book-keeper and seemed to be a sensible chap. I certainly had no calling and my heart would have preferred to do Art, Journalism or Advertising but either the competition or the seeming lack of future earnings prospects made me aim for something more mainstream. My offer to study Accounting was 2 Bs and a C at A-level – no restrictions on subjects applied. I achieved them comfortably with an A in General Studies, an A in Art, and Cs in English Literature and Economics – what better qualifications for a degree in Accounting? For this carefully planned decision I had all my tuition fees paid, most of my living expenses covered by the generous UK taxpayers as well as being able to claim unemployment benefit in the Summer.

Amongst my peers were plenty of stories of being the first person from their school EVER to go to University. I went to a reasonably good comprehensive school and a pretty good Sixth Form college but we all had the expectation that University was a realistic possibility and that we ought to apply. Every year people sat the Oxbridge entrance exam and a few got in. I realized that this was not the experience everywhere else and, although I was one of the 5% who went to University, I wasn’t in either the cleverest or the most deserving 5%.

Once we got there, because we weren’t paying, and because the stories of louche University life were rife and attractive, we enjoyed ourselves. We worked but no harder than we had previously (and I can say this of absolutely everyone on my course). Because we were funded by The State the standard of some lecturing was appalling, we had very little 1:1 tutoring and the accommodation provided was spartan. We shared the same fate as most public services during those years. This was at a well-regarded red-brick University. I got my 2:2, had a reality check and used my education to buy me a ticket into a different career at a level I couldn’t have achieved without a degree and made the most of it.

Roll forward 25 years and a University reunion. We wouldn’t normally attend but with children approaching the right age we thought we’d go and see what University life was like for the current undergraduate.

Initial impressions were very favourable. The campus, which had always been attractive, was just as well manicured as before. The Great Hall was as thoroughly impressive as I remembered but the speeches of welcome were far more commercial. We then had some excursions to see individual faculties and accommodation. Here the transformation was evident. The faculties were wonderfully equipped and, instead of appalling tea machines, they had franchises of the major coffee chains in-house. The halls of residence had been transformed – “no-one would dream of paying for a room without en suite facilities”. The role of the Student Union was transformed from  being an ineffective “bar and bathroom” to a really proactive body with a role to play in ensuring tuition standards were maintained, student safety was protected and results were improving. In the building there were very good quality pizza restaurants and the old snooker room and huge grubby and sticky bar had disappeared. I was amazed at the difference.

It suddenly made me realise that with funding comes power. You are no longer willing to accept substandard treatment and poor quality products as a paying consumer. The Universities have to attract sufficient customers from the UK and abroad and this was also a key factor. The University of my youth had more than trebled in size so that it could no longer hold any “all-faculty events”. The old character of the place had changed and could never return.

Roll forward again to this Summer and visits to Universities as a prospect parent of an undergraduate. What was apparent is that although almost all Universities will be charging the maximum £9,000 per year regardless of quality. In addition the living costs will vary depending on the services provided by each university. In my experience there is an inverted pyramid. The best universities offer more bundled services (accommodation, food, laundry, sporting facilities) than the poorer ones but only charge the same amount of money for them. They also have ample bursaries and scholarships so that they can make the claim “no-one will be unable to attend through lack of money”. What seems obvious to me is that the market economy will weave its magic again. There will be fewer students willing to pay the fees to the poorer universities with an uncertain job market afterwards. As a result there will be an excess of university places and an excess of university staff which will reduce costs and drive down prices. The inevitable effect of this is that some universities or faculties will be no longer viable and will be forced to close. We will return nearer to the situation of my youth where only 5% of the population went to University rather than the 39% these days.

But what happens to the poor students who now can’t afford to go to University? The point is that they never could! The only difference is that instead of the taxpayer footing the bill they are now presented with the prospect of paying themselves and choose not to go. For many it forces them to look at entering the blue chip companies in a different way – through apprenticeships or standard recruitment rather than the graduate entry route. Importantly the change takes the stigma away from bright young people making a choice. For the first time in many years choosing not to go to university is a strong and acceptable choice rather than a sign of failure. Those needing to and making that choice will be better off by doing so and will get better quality training in many cases. They won’t have missed out on a riotous student life because, although the colleges today have bars, the ones we saw were full of students studying and had to close early to keep the noise down!

Importantly those 5% who do go to University will have made a conscious choice, supported by better advice in schools, and will work harder while they are there. The colleges they attend will be properly funded, be passionate about what they do and provide a nurturing environment for them.

About justaukcook

/kʊk/ Not a chef, not an epicure, not a foodie. Just one who likes to prepare food – What really happens in the kitchen and on the high street is what I write about. Follow me on Twitter @Justaukcook and on
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3 Responses to Three cheers for those rejecting University

  1. Gordon Hart says:

    I am having some difficulty following the logic of your argument, Paul. In the first sentence you state an ‘on principle’ opposition to tuition fees. Then, perversly, you mount a longish defence of the Coalition’s policy to allow universities to charge up to £9000 pa in the very same tuition fees. Bewildering!

    The major part of your argument seems to rest on a sentimental journey into your own university education which was supported in full by a student grant. This allowed you to enjoy the unrepeatable life experience of three years away from home studying at a leading red brick university and coming away with a worthy and marketable if unremarkable ‘Desmond’. All this at a time when 95% of your peers had little or no opportunity to emulate your journey of self discovery.

    You should be grateful and you should be keen that the hard won increases in university opportunities which have been responded to with such vigour (39% is your figure), should be preserved and extended further. More courses and more students experiencing the privileges enjoyed by only the few in your day.

    But you are not. Instead you would rather see ‘ the market economy weave its magic again’. This roughly translates into limited opportunities accessed by largely the better off. Alongside this, universities will feel the inhibitions of the market in their choices of what courses to present: if it aint economically useful it aint worth studying. Universities will regress (are regressing) to the bastions of privilege that they were.

    You assert that Michael Gove and the Coalition may ‘have fallen backwards into an excellent decision’. Well, I believe that you have, in your admiration of the surface features of modern university facilities as witnessed during your recent visits on open days, been seduced into a double Govian back flip. Everything is more high tech, brighter, more luxurious, and more strewn with advertising logos than they were in your wooly jumpered, dodgy sandled, pints of bitter in the scruffy old student union bar time, but then that is true of most aspects of life in Britain. All of this hardly represents the essentials of good university education.

    The idea that potential university entrants whose parents don’t possess the readies are going to, in these straitened times, gratefully walk into apprenticeships in ‘blue chip’ organisations is also conservative nonsense. There is already a head of resentment building up against the generation who enjoyed their college days without the prospect of debt incurred by student loans. How much more betrayed are these young people going to feel as these Govite plans realise their fruition? ‘For the first time in many years choosing(sic) not to go to university is a strong and acceptable choice, rather than a sign of failure’ I don’t think so. They won’t think so either, but will see it rather as a failure to give them what our parents gave us.

  2. Hi Gordon, Thanks for your comments as ever. I’m really concerned that you are trying to pin me down as an apologist for Michael Gove yet again. Enough already!

    As far as the logic of my argument is concerned I was attempting to say in my opening statement that I WAS inherently opposed to the decision to charge tuition fees but, now the decision has been made, my views are softening based on what I see and read. They are changing based on reassessing my own university experience – and it’s unremarkable (thank you) result, seeing the impact that charging for tuition fees and the greater contribution required over the last few years has already had, and the much better understanding I now have as my own children approach the decision about University. Surely the right thing is to avoid being tied down in dogma and adapt with the times?

    My argument is that although more opportunities have been made available this has been at a terrible cost. The tuition I received was by no means universally excellent and the evidence I see is that the quality of candidate, quality of course and employment prospects have all declined – we were sold a pup! There were certainly more candidates who would benefit from a University education than had the opportunity in my day but nowhere near as many as took up the opportunity, egged on by over-ambitious universities springing up and battling for funding. There must be some kind of boundaries in your mind over the suitability of some courses and some students or does literally anything go? Is a three year course with very little tutorial time, with second rate lecturers and limited employment prospects really still OK in your book because it is a university after all? If indeed, the students who are going to university today are receiving the same quality of education and privileges as I did I would agree with you. While the top universities still offer a stunningly good education and life experience, and have responded to demand by increasing the number of places available, others have taken the opportunity to attract funding and collect unwarranted tuition fees from the Government. I think you have a far greater faith in the education industry to regulate itself than I do.

    Finally, I think you also place the emphasis on the parents as the constraining factor for a university education and, in doing so, underestimate the resources (non-financial) and knowledge of students today. Students have had to fund living expenses for some time and so it really is only tuition fees that are different. No parent in their right mind is going to give their child the money to pay the fees upfront when there are clear benefits in having a student loan – not least that the student may never have to pay back the fees. Employers are already developing ways of supporting students in this area. In the near future I can see new products and services from the Government and financial institutions to improve the provision in this area.

    Ultimately, the purpose of my blog was not to criticise those going to the second rate universities to study iffy courses but to be thankful that young people today can choose (and I really think they are choosing of their own free will) to pursue an alternative to University education. They are no longer feeling railroaded into a simple “go to university” vs “start a job at the bottom” decision and we are all better off for it.

  3. Gordon Hart says:

    Sorry for the “unremarkable”, but as a member of the top 5% “unremarkable” is clearly stratospheric.

    I enjoyed reading your piece, as I always do, but I do not share your optimism for the current direction. I think that those who do not wish to go to university have always chosen not to, as indeed i did, until later in my career.

    Gove I believe is about wrenching us back to some halcyon time that never existed, about narrowing choice and about excluding the majority. I cannot go along with that “dogma”.

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