Friday 20 March 2009

Who needs a university education?

This week a number of university vice chancellors made proposals for a significant increase in university tuition fees. According to reports more than half of university heads would like to see students pay at least £5,000 a year, with no upper limit, which critics argue would result in many of the country’s elite universities charging some of the highest fees.

For me there are two main points that have been raised. The first one being the debate on who and where university funding should come from. There is now a general consensus, which believes that the idea of university education being free at the point of delivery is now over.

With more people going to university, it now appears totally unrealistic to think that students should not contribute something towards their studying. I was fortunate enough to go to university before tuition fees were introduced, but I would now fully expect to contribute to my education.

In addition to this many of the elite ‘Russell Group’ universities claim that an increase in funding is essential if the UK’s top universities are able to compete with some of the world’s best higher learning institutions. Again this is a perfectly valid argument, and as a nation we should want to see our universities compete with the worlds best.

The second point which has occurred to me, and which I think is equally if not more important is this: How many young people do we want to go to university? And how many young people really need to go to university? For a number of years now the Labour government have stated that it would like to see at least 50% of all young people go on to study at university. Again this figure is unrealistic and if anything adds to the problem of university funding.

Time and time again I’ve heard the government say that people who go to university will on average earn a higher salary in their life time then those who don’t. Now I’m quite positive this was the case 20, 30 years ago, but I’m certainly not convinced by this now.

There seems to be what I can only describe as the ‘graduate-tisation’ of the job market where some people are now doing jobs that require a degree, that a generation ago a good set of O-Levels or A-levels would have been perfectly adequate for. We’re in danger of encouraging too many young people to get degrees which will not earn them fantastic salaries or jobs, but will leave them in huge amounts of debt and perhaps a certain amount of disappointment and bitterness that their degrees aren’t worth what they were promised they would be.

Those who disagree with this will argue that having more people going to university helps people from lower income backgrounds get degrees, and improves social mobility. If anything all that has happened is that more middle class kids now go to university, with social mobility slowly grinding to a halt in this country.

Of course we should encourage people from all backgrounds and walks of life to go onto Higher Education, but we need to think long and hard on the actual numbers we need, and the overall purpose of a degree education. I don’t think we can have this debate of tuition fees without considering these other points.

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