Free Degrees – Should The Poor Subsidise The Rich?

BUCF Honorary member Dominic Fisher aka praguetory considers that the coalition’s student funding proposals are a bold step in the right direction.

In terms of student funding, my time at university between 1993 and 1996 saw the gradual substitution of student grants with student loans. Tuition fees weren’t even on the agenda, but like this generation, I could point to predecessors who were more generously indulged by the taxpayer. For example, my dad, who studied architecture in Birmingham whilst living at home in the 1960s tells me that he’d rarely had as much money in his pocket as then.  Going back even further, I have a recollection of Ken Clarke describing the doubles being on him when he was at uni.

My level of grant was in the range where some parental contribution was required, but my stubbornness/independence led me to work full time during most of my first year in halls to help tide me over in my subsequent years and keep me from asking my parents for financial help. Nevertheless, I seem to remember feeling that it was unfair that students seemed to be bearing a considerable share of the relatively minor fiscal tightening which followed the early 90s recession – which led to a signal moment.

One day I was having a whinge about student funding to my mum, who, as far as I am aware, has never voted Tory (unless Tim Hasker swayed her last May) when she shot back “As you go through life, you’re going to find yourself in many hard-done-by groups rather a lot” or something to that effect. In other words my mum who grew up knowing real poverty was telling me to grow up. Eureka! And so, I began to look at education and how best to provide it through the eyes of society at large rather than passing self-interest.

The period since I left university has been an interesting one. Governed by New Labour, higher education bears all the usual scars – arbitrary targets, declining standards and overspending on unreformed public services. In a nutshell, quantity over quality. Unfortunately, the longer you take to reform services, the greater the vested interests and the more painful the change in the short term. I think we are seeing this at the moment with unions and sub-standard lecturers leading useful idiot students into a futile battle with the government. They have no chance.

As things stand, demands for free university or even the status quo are effectively a call for the least well educated half of the population to subsidise the relatively affluent half of the population who make it to uni. Even at the best of times, it is difficult to argue for this. With the fiscal situation as it is and the government being forced into implementing difficult measures such as increases in the retirement age and abolition of the child trust fund which will affect other sectors of society, carrying on regardless is a complete non-starter.

I like the coalition’s proposals. Whilst recognising that the benefits to education accrue mainly to the students themselves, the funding proposals delay the cost and insure the student against economic failure.

The ability for institutions to raise fees will allow the best universities greater independence and financing to ensure they can compete with the world’s best in terms of academic excellence.

I expect the new structure will be an opportunity for the more innovative second tier universities to carve out their own niche. I would hope off-peak universities to serve working graduates, internet universities and accelerated degree courses would blossom to offer choice to motivated students who don’t think the funding and other implications of the traditional undergraduate degree suits them.

It should not be overlooked that bursaries targeted at the poorest are an element of the proposals.

Please don’t think that  I believe that the implementation of the Browne Report should be the final word in higher education. Proposed arrangements are out-of-kilter with most other European countries and it is quite likely that the number of EU students coming to the UK could fall quite dramatically and that British students will themselves look overseas. Further, I think there may be a greater role for business to play a contribution to higher education costs and I think that it would be appropriate for public sector recruiters to review how much emphasis they place on having a degree.

Nevertheless, if these proposals deliver a flexible higher education system, which is fit for purpose, future generations of graduates might look back at those graduating now with pity rather than envy.  

Dominic Fisher (praguetory)

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3 thoughts on “Free Degrees – Should The Poor Subsidise The Rich?

  1. Note sure I agree with everything Prague, but it’s quite a well written piece. Not nit-picking but is the last sentence slightly wrong?

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