Sunday, 27 September 2009

Students Should Pay More for Higher Education?

It seems that whenever higher education funding hits the debating table all manner of groups and individuals crawl out of the woodwork with the ideal proposal which usually involves a way of cutting the number of university entrants. The debacle over tuition fees, five years ago, is also still very fresh in the minds of student associations and the NUS (and students still trying to repay those increasing debts) so any Labour initiatives in this regard will no doubt send shivers up their spine. Well that debate has raised its controversial head once again as the Government gears up for a major review of higher education funding and student fees.

Their aim, according to England’s Higher Education minister David Lammy is to invest further into the system and aspire for 50% of young people to go to university. This seems to further illustrate the government’s view of universal access to higher education when Business Secretary Lord Mandelson called for universities to protect access to poorer students and do more to promote social mobility should they see an increase in fees.

Whilst Labour are still climbing up the hill that this their continued attempts to convinces us they are the champions of higher education access, the good old Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are putting pressure on the Government to increase the cost of attending university. Their proposals include:

  • Reducing subsidies on student loans.

  • Corporate sponsorship of grants and bursaries

  • More means testing.

  • Increase in tuition fees (in England and Northern Ireland they are £3,225 and Wales £1,285 with no tuition fees in Scotland)

  • University focus on more economically valuable subjects such as Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Languages.

It’s no surprise also that these proposals have the backing of The Russell Group, a lobbying organisation made up of twenty of the country's prestigious universities, who consisently pressure the government for increase in fees and other initiatives that would limit the number of university entrants, supposedly to protect the quality of education offered.

Yes there are some common sense suggestions here. I am sure nobody would have qualms about means testing (as long as it is fair) or a focus on economically viable subjects, although one would wonder what do you consider an economically viable subject when more and more jobs are being sent abroad?

The hike in fees promotes an obvious fear of increased student debt, especially as fees could be increased to £5,000 - £7,000 per year, and some even higher. This would also have a limiting effect on those who simply feel that they only way they could afford to go to university would be to hold down multiple jobs, or follow the example of student Rosie Reid and sell their virginity. The ultimate effect would be the limiting of access, however if Lord Mandelson's call is answered then this may not be an issue.

I remember twenty years ago, attending a student demonstration against the implementation of top up loans. The mantra boomed over the streets of Bristol was "Education a right, not a privilege". Yet in an explicit display of arrogance and elitism the CBI and The Russell Group seem determined to reverse that principle thereby disuading those on low income from having aspirations of higher education. It took me ten years to repay my student loan and it was nowehere near the levels they are today.

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