Vince Cable began his speech proposing the increase in tuition fees by ‘hoping’, inter alia, that ‘nobody is suggesting that we should cut student numbers’. This statement tells us everything that is wrong with the debate on tuition fees.
On one side, ministers and other apologists for the policy argue for a scheme likely to require students to start their working lives with £40,000 of debt by saying that ‘almost everyone’ will be better off and then (bizarrely) supporting the policy by arguing that between 40 and 60 per cent of debts will be written off. It is highly questionable that ‘debts’ that are so qualified and so expressly underwritten by government should not actually be considered part of the national debt: that very debt that the Coalition is so exercised in cutting. The generous repayment terms proposed (another reason it would be wise to hesitate before describing this as anything other than public debt) also suggest that it will be many years before there is a real increase in private funding for universities.
Ranged against them is the irate NUS which, when it isn’t engaged in secret negotiations with the government about cutting £800 million off grants in order to prevent or mitigate the rise in fees, opposes blindly every proposal to reform higher education finance while condemning even a small reduction in the proposed increase in student numbers.
At least the government recognises that a choice has to be made. Students must take on more and more of the cost of higher education in mass market higher education because nobody ‘seriously argues’ for a reduction in student numbers. The NUS – with the pie in the sky attitude that typifies the left – wants to have its cake and eat it. No increases in fees (preferably decreases) and ever increasing student numbers.
Will anyone in public life have the guts to admit that the assumption underpinning this debate – that it is an inherent good to educate half our young people in universities – is not only discredited and flawed but has mortgaged the future of all who benefit from university education? Does anyone want to ask what a university education is for? Or are we so fixated by a dutch auction with other OECD countries that we must measure our performance not on the literacy and numeracy and other objective measures of our children’s attainment (all of which have fallen over the last 13 years) but by the proportion that receive a tertiary education, regardless of its merit?
Quite apart from the fact that students are encouraged to see a university education as a right, rather than a great attainment to aspire to and be earned by academic performance (witness the complaints when over-subscribed universities were forced to turn down applicants – shock horror!), perhaps we might also consider the worth of a university education. Until the middle of the twentieth century even solicitors, accountants and barristers could enter their professions without a degree (I know of at least one Lord Justice of Appeal who entered the Bar this way). University wasn’t seen as necessary even for the liberal professions; yet now it appears that almost every white collar recruiter requires a degree. For what?
It angers me that bright poor children may be put off going to university – and almost all will be forced to incur these debts – because we have lost sight of what universities are about. ‘Mass education’ was one of the cries at the protests yesterday. Mass education has led us into this sorry mess.