Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Higher education as a "privilege"

Debate raging over at Jeff's blog on a comment the great man made about higher education. I say raging, it is mostly just me who is taking him to task for it.

Comment made by Jeff in his post:

Making students pay. Abso-bloomin-lootly. I find it bizarre that students get such an easy beat. I remember very well how skint I was back then but if we're going to keep the free tuition fees (which we shouldn't if we're serious about long-term investment in our universities), I think the least the youngsters could do is pay their way for water, sewage and rubbish collection. They certainly use their fair share of each.

And subsequent comment in the comments section:

I think my bottom line is, a university degree should be a privilege and not a right. And that should be reflected in the price, somehow.

From that comment, I took Jeff to mean that university should not be free, that it was a privilege and not a right to go and (perhaps unfairly) I thought it also meant that if you couldn't afford it, you couldn't go. To which, I said this:

Are you seriously saying that only those who are privileged enough to have parents that have cash should be allowed to go to uni?

From his comment, I considered that was a fair assessment of his position. However, he subsequently put me right in saying:

You seem to be suggesting that my philosophy is that only people that can afford to go to university should go. That's not what I'm saying.

The privilege should be reflected in the cost but for those who can't afford it, and are motivated, enthusiastic and have sufficient intellectual capacity, that cost should be borne by the Government.

Then there was some name-calling, some needling about PhD candidacy and general good-natured banter.

Anyway, the exchange raised for me what is an interesting point. Should students have to pay for their degrees?

The SNP (with help from the Lib Dems) have obviously abolished the graduate endowment, which means that higher education at undergraduate level in Scotland is essentially free. Now, I'm probably with Jeff in thinking that students should have to pay something for their tuition at university (and given I'm a PhD student and I DO have fees, I understand how financially difficult that might be). But I'm not sure how that could be done. Anyone have any thoughts?


James Kelly 16 September 2009 at 14:38  

Surely a graduate tax (as a small supplement to income tax for anyone who had been to university) would be the most elegant solution? It would take away the psychology of debt, it would be based strictly on the ability to pay, there'd be no grievance about people who hadn't been to university 'subsidising' well-off students, and perhaps best of all, the generations of politicians who enjoyed free education before cheerfully kicking the ladder away would have to pay the tax as well.

Of course, it probably will never happen for one simple reason - politicians reckon the electorate are allergic to the word 'tax' regardless of circumstance.

Incidentally, I graduated from university in 2000 without a penny of debt - it seems almost like a miracle in retrospect.

Stephen Glenn 16 September 2009 at 15:57  

Can I get this right a member of the party that said they would scrap student debt is saying that those priviledged enough to afford education should eb allowed to do it, and only those that are hard off should get Government support.

Being an old timer, who campaigned against the introduction of loans all that time ago, I noticed that some of ths issues now arising would creep in. For starters a great number of our students are currently having to take paid employment for longer than their DOSs say they should to be able to complete the requirements of their courses. This is just to keep up with the cost of living, even with the loan requirements that they have.

There is not a suffecient minimum income guarantee for our students to be able to get through their degrees and learn about life, that is not a priviledge of the Universitry system, that is a rounding of individuals that is required for a knowledge based economy. Otherwise all we are churning out are machines that can do the work put before them in the quickest way they know. Rather than being able to think outside the box.

James you are indeed fortunate. I know of many current students and recenty graduates who would like to even see the horizon over which that level of debt is visiable.

PJ 16 September 2009 at 16:25  

I don't think anyone would disagree that higher education should be available to all, regardless of background/finances etc. Actually not everyone would even agree that a university education is as valuable as it perhaps once was, but that's a different issue.

There doesn't seem to be much likelihood of any of the main political parties proposing increased or additional taxes for students at a higher education level. However the current situation isn't sustainable. We have far too many university students studying degrees that will not directly lead them to employment. Too many students graduating with no prospects, limited professional skills and huge debts.

If the specific issue is one of how to balance the investment the state makes into higher education without increasing student fees or debts then I have a suggestion. Students should be able to reduce their debts through a credit system of contributing their time and experience to voluntary/community projects.

I know many students already do this sort of thing but often, with the best will in the world, it's because it's a course requirment or they're 'encouraged' to volunteer at relevant places. And that's great! Until they walk out the door having ticked the relevant boxes in their course checklist and never come back.

It costs time and money to train these students, an investment by charities, agencies and government departments that only gets a limited return. Now if there was a structured system whereby students had an additional motivation to give their time then that could be a win win situation.

Jeff 16 September 2009 at 18:39  

I like PJ's idea, I'd sign up for that.

Indeed, in Australia I believe the system works whereby any part-time work done by a student is doubled with a contribution from the Government.

So the hooray-Henrys who don't need to work don't get anything but those that need the money can work in bars or in a restaurant of whatever and know that their paltry £5k a year will get bumped up to £10k (or whatever).

Sounds good to me.

Malc 16 September 2009 at 18:45  


I agree. Your point is the same as PJ's:

"[T]he current situation isn't sustainable. We have far too many university students studying degrees that will not directly lead them to employment."

I'm probably one of them...

ASwaS 16 September 2009 at 22:30  

A graduate tax is like a student loan that you have to keep repaying forever. For me the thought would have probably been even more of a disincentive than straightforward debt.

Students that become successful graduates and benefit from their degrees pay more tax. Students that don't, don't. That seems fair to me.

Holyrood Patter 18 September 2009 at 05:22  

some courses (politics, teaching etc) do these types of things for zero reward and I have heard all types of slave labour.

as for under priveleged kids, SAAS has a lot to answer for. i know people including myself been "approved" expenses and then had deductions made, but perhaps its the approved section that is reported to their relevant governmental superior, thus fudging figures.

i also know people who have pleaded absolute poverty to SAAS (as in, without funding i literally cannot get to University) and had no joy

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