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.