higher education

A new cap or a new price?

The government today responded to the Browne review recommendations.  A few brief details on government proposals:

  • A rise in the tuition fee cap up to a possible £9,000 (including a lower cap of £6,000);
  • higher interest rates on loans, up to 3% above inflation;
  • students pay back once they earn above £21,000;
  • slightly higher maintenance grant for students from families earning below £25,000;
  • Introduction of £150m ‘National Scholarships Programme’;
  • greater loan support for part-time students.

For greater detail, Times Higher Education have put together the main detail in the proposals.  There will be a lot more discussion throughout the week across the media, that’s for sure.  Then there’s the small matter of a demo in London on November 10…

Wordle: David Willetts - 3 Nov 2010, response to Browne & HE proposals

Just after the majority of teaching funding was slashed by the government, universities are going to have to find a lot of money from elsewhere.  So it’s unlikely that institutions will want to charge less than £9,000 if possible.  As with many capping exercises of the past, expect to see the cap become the price. Chances are that £9,000 will become a standard figure, with £6,000 being charged by any universities that cannot work toward the extra agreements.  Whether or not you agree with a full marketisation of higher education in a cap-less system, it’s hard to see a variable rate up to £6,000 or £9,000 do more than push the standard price up across all institutions.

This situation is clearly one in which the financial burden will be placed on students.  Those in favour of these changes are keen to say that it is graduates, not students, who will pay back the debt.  These graduates are still the same individuals, regardless of what you call them.  Students don’t pay up front at the moment, so the government is not proposing any type of revolutionary change.

Today’s proposals appear to be more of an offsetting exercise in regard to government debts. People won’t be saddled with credit card or mortgage style debts, but neither are they faced with that under today’s system.

Graduates will likely pay back more over 30 years.  The lower debt we currently have, coupled with a cut off of 25 years, is not much different to a higher debt and a cut off of 30 years.  The only real difference is the amount of time many individuals spend paying money back.  Some call this a stealth tax.  Some say that NUS and other opponents to fee hikes are scaring potential students unnecessarily.

Yet these proposals will make an impact.  And alternative measures have been offered.  For example, NUS released a blueprint outlining a graduate tax long before the Browne review was announced.  That graduate tax was essentially ignored.  The type of graduate tax dismissed in the Browne report was a basic, pure graduate tax; not the one offered by NUS.

For all the discussion going on today and all the debate within government, today’s proposals are not all that different to what is currently on offer.  Yes, graduates won’t find themselves having to pay scary amounts every month once they’re earning over £21,000, but those payments will go on for much longer than they do today, because:

  1. The fees will be higher;
  2. The interest rate will be higher than inflation;
  3. The cut off before remaining debt is written off will go up from 25 years to 30 years.

Some complaints regarding the graduate tax offered by NUS suggested that many graduates would have to pay back more than they do now.

However, at a time when fees are set to potentially treble, that argument cannot work.  There are pros and cons to everything.  Despite mentioning NUS recommendations, I’m not suggesting any particular solution here.  My main issue is that people are not being listened to.

And while debate rolls on regarding the future of HE, it’s difficult for anyone to sensibly debate the issues because the goal posts keep being changed.  Is it any wonder so many people are angry at Liberal Democrat moves to support higher fees when every single Lib Dem MP signed the NUS pledge that they would not support those very proposals?

Situations change and decisions do need to be updated based on new developments.  However, much of the situation was known when those pledges were signed and many alternatives had been proposed, including by Lib Dems themselves.

With an almost total cut in government funding for university teaching, much higher fees will not provide universities with extra income.  Those fees will also, therefore, result in no change to the student experience.  The individual is set to pay more for the same and, quite possibly, more for less.

It is, therefore, no surprise that so many students, academics, parents, and other individuals are unhappy with what’s happening in higher education right now.

As things stand, I imagine there will be a considerable turn out in London on November 10.  Mario Creatura recently said:

“I’m concerned that the decision to protest has been built on a foundation of emotive language gleaned from activists and the headlines which were ultimately based on Browne’s recommendation rather than what the coalition has actually said.”

Now the coalition has spoken.  Creatura was worried that the London demo may protest too many issues and cover too much ground.  But I feel this shows the magnitude of what is happening.

The Conservatives have been fond of saying “We’re in this together”, so why can’t people covering all aspects of higher education say the same thing?  The issues may be plenty and cover a large proportion of HE, but that’s exactly the reason why solidarity is necessary more than ever.

Far from diluting the noise, a collective effort may be exactly what’s needed to point out why the situation must be taken more seriously and with greater focus on the bigger picture.

The government wants students to have more of a say in what’s important to them regarding higher education.  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s time to speak up.

What is the point of studying a degree?

Last night, thanks to @Jim_Dickinson and @AaronPorter‘s Mum, I found out that BBC current affairs show, Newsnight, had a feature asking about the point of studying a degree at university.

I feel the Newsnight piece asked the wrong questions. I’ve always argued that the student experience is the whole experience, not just the degree. That’s why the experience of someone who doesn’t go to university can be just as rewarding. It’s what the person, as an individual, makes their experience.

photo by Abulic Monkey

photo by Abulic Monkey

Jeremy Paxman talked to Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of Million+, and Michelle Dewberry, 2006 winner of The Apprentice.

Dewberry said, “I wanted to earn money”, and she set out to do that without university. Making money, even lots of it, doesn’t require a degree.

This may be a misconception among some people. So just to make it clear, if your main aim is solely to make money, university isn’t the solution. University may or may not help, but it’s not the way forward if all you want to do is roll around in cash. And the sooner someone starts putting their money-making plans into action, the sooner they’ll start to see money coming in. A few years at uni may just hold things up!

Therefore, taking the non-university route is most successfully travelled in one of these two circumstances:

  1. With a clear vocation/career in mind that does not require university. It may require an apprenticeship, no formal education at all, or education ‘on-the-job’ at a later stage;
  2. With a passion and will so great that the individual knows what they want and how they’re going to get it.

Much of the magic of university is that higher learning can help uncover passions, it can bring about opportunity that may not have presented itself outside an academic institution, and it can allow intense focus on learning and teaching that may not be available elsewhere.

Higher Education (HE) has many benefits. That doesn’t mean everyone should go to university, but it does mean everyone should be given the choice.

The other question asked on Newsnight was that of qualification inflation. Why does a job or career now require a degree if it once required only GCSEs or A-Levels? Pam Tatlow hit the nail on the head when she said, “I don’t think that any job just stays still”. She went on to suggest that qualification inflation is created by employers, rather than universities.

I have no argument with Pam Tatlow’s remarks; she held a good argument to the question asked. The question itself, however, is not entirely relevant for students. With 43% of school leavers now going into HE, it’s clear that the situation has indeed changed over time. But regardless of what qualifications are required to get on in life, there is more to uni life than simply studying.

Granted, there are people out there who don’t make much use of their three or four years at uni. Maybe they just don’t care. But most likely, they probably don’t know how to make the most of their experience.  If I could go back, I would do things differently to enhance my experience, yet I’m this passionate about university ANYWAY!  It just goes to show how much is possible.

An important question to ask is, how can students discover new opportunities at university and actively develop opportunities that have already come their way?

Going back to the Newsnight feature, Pam Tatlow made these points:

  • “There’s not one path to success.”
  • “One size does not fit all.”
  • “There is not one route into success.”

You’ll notice these all make the same point. Tatlow was speaking in terms of whether or not you choose to study a degree. She’s absolutely right. And the same can be said for students already studying a degree. The future success of a student is not guaranteed because of the degree, it is because of the path they have taken. And different people walk down different paths.

I’m sorry if that sounds too philosophical, but you can’t compare HE with success. You can use HE to find success and you can use HE along the way to build something successful, but nobody should suggest that all who go into HE will be successful.

Don’t get me wrong, the aim should be to help all who go into HE to find success. So arguing about the point of a degree is pointless in itself. The question is too broad and ends up working off subjective opinions as opposed to proper facts.

The Newsnight piece questioned degrees such as Golf Course Management. But if your passion is to be heavily involved in the golfing business, what is so wrong in following a vocation and using HE to help get you closer to your dream? And what is the harm in a degree that covers professional practice, project management, events experience, finance, coaching, staff management, and so on? Surely these are all transferable skills?

My passion for Higher Education doesn’t come from the degree I studied. But I wouldn’t have found that passion if I’d not studied a degree.

The degree is the start of a journey, not the destination.