channel 4

Making student places available and how to fund them

Channel 4 News last night provided a debate on the number of students going in to higher education and whether more places should be provided to meet demand.

Many young people are finding it difficult to find a place at uni, despite outstanding grades.  Rejections may come down solely to a flawed personal statement, or some minor issue that’s become a major block.  In all this uncertainty, it’s clear that the current system of allocating places at university is not supporting all those who would benefit from higher education.

photo by id-iom

photo by id-iom

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities, was first to speak on the Channel 4 debate.  She said huge increase in applications forces the question of whether the economy needs this many graduates and, if so, how can we afford them?  Due to world competition, Piatt argued that quality should be maintained.  Why short change students by spreading a limited pot of money too thinly?

Piatt went on to say that the current system does not support greater numbers of students.  Rather than have everybody pay the same amount of money, Piatt said there should be variation, especially as some people earn much more than others.

Strangely, this last point reminded me of an argument for graduate tax, which the Russell Group opposes.  They would rather see the cap on fees raised, if not abolished altogether.

It’s no surprise that the Russell Group want higher fees. They would be able to charge much more, yet maintain a full quota of students.  If any set of universities can stay strong based on their history and prestige, it is this set.

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Professor Leslie Davies, vice chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said that HE currently caters for different purposes, needs and lifestyles. However, there needs to be further diversification to meet learner’s needs.  For instance, not all students want to move away from home for three years now.  A big shift is happening with better informed students looking more closely at career prospects.

Davies explained that employers are looking for a wide range of qualifications and skills from the workforce, with many companies recognising A-levels as a way in, as well as Diplomas and vocational routes.  A “one size fits all” approach is no longer helpful, so young people require better advice and guidance to suit their personal situation.

NUS President, Aaron Porter, warned of greater costs for the government unless more places were created for students.  The burden on jobseeker’s allowance with many people out of work could be huge, he argued, with the number of jobs drying up and fierce competition for apprenticeships.

In terms of debt, Porter disagreed with Piatt that degree costs should be variable based on course studied.  Some people choose to study law & economics and want to be a teacher.  Why should they be saddled with more debt if they go on to that totally different vocation?

Porter said that both individuals and the state will lose out if the state continues to set an artificial cap on places.  Students should be able to attend university if they wish and demonstrate the ability and grades.  Compared with OECD countries, the UK is slipping down the tables fast.  More people are entering higher education in other countries compared with here, which could severely limit the UK workforce.

photo by garlandcannon

photo by garlandcannon

How did the students see all this?  Also in the studio was a mix of young people either going to university this year or who had missed out on a place at uni despite good grades.

A selection of comments:

  • Students are a burden, but they are also the next workforce who need the right skills and training;
  • University may not be the only choice, but why stop people who DO want to attend and who have made the grade?
  • Looks like re-stratification. Fine if you can afford Cambridge, otherwise forced to do something else like get a diploma from a ‘random college’;
  • Graduate tax is a good idea. However, differential rates do pose a difficulty and it’s not easy to argue the best solution;
  • If you want to go to uni and have your mind set on it, you should have that right.  University is not the only way to kickstart a career.
  • Social perception needs changing before we can better engage public on benefits of HE.  Students are still seen as a lazy bunch who do precious little, but it’s a misconception;
  • Student debt is a growing issue for those looking at future options.  More potential students being turned off now there’s a greater chance of debt skyrocketing further.

The debate made clear that everyone agreed on certain points:

  1. University isn’t the only valid option available to further career prospects;
  2. Better advice and guidance is required to help people make better choices;
  3. Current numbers of students are not sustainable unless some form of change is introduced.

The third point is where much of the agreement breaks down.  The debate rests on where change should be made.  Should diversity naturally lower the number of people filing in to universities?  Should fees be raised and students/graduates shoulder the burden?  Should the artificial cap on places be lifted and funding be sourced from other savings?

I feel the first two points are crucial in assisting the change required in the third point.  Luckily, there is so much agreement on those two points.

Student numbers and funding provision are still the big issues for the government.  In the process, individual choices and the widening of opportunity falls deeper to the background.  What if the way forward was actually moving further away from view?  This is even more pertinent after Nick Clegg’s recent speech on social mobility:

“This is a complex and contested area of both research and policy. And action to improve social mobility will take many years to take effect. In policy terms, it is like turning the wheel on an oil tanker.

“Promoting social mobility is a long-term business. And it is precisely for that reason that it is vital to establish now, at the beginning of our time in office, that promoting social mobility is at the top of our social agenda.”

Social mobility involves more than money and affordability.  This is just the same for universities. Funding may be the problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s also the solution.