Wednesday, 13 March 2013

pesky students

I haven't written in this blog for a while, so why not now?

Below is an article I wrote for my university's newspaper when I was a bored second year student on why I don't think higher education should be free. I wasn't into extra-curricular activities at all, more just annoyed by the "socialist" students who were lobbying against tuition fees but without any sense of how any alternative system would work. My main concern was that free university education almost seemed like some sort of "lemon socialism" - a benefit for the rich at the expense of the poor. When I asked the guy who wrote lots of articles about how tuition fees are scandalous to comment on my rebuttal via the marvelous social media site that is Facebook, I was merely ignored. Of course, I was a young padawan when I wrote it, so I think it will be a snazzy idea to have a look at it now and review my opinion of it now (four years on).

filthy students: a further burden on the cash strapped state?

Usually, the image the word “debt” conjures up in most people’s minds is extremely unpleasant. Being at the mercy of a bailiff, who storms through your door seizing jewellery and other personal goods worth any money, or being forced out of your beloved home because the bank has repossessed it. Student debt is slightly different- no matter how much we complain about how impoverished the current tuition fees system makes us, this just isn’t very true. Repayment begins when a graduate can afford it (when he or she is earning over £15,000,) and there are options to help those who are genuinely struggling.

The decision taken by many young people to go to university is a frivolous one. It’s arguable that rather than having an inherent thirst for knowledge, many of them choose the university route for the parties, the drinking and the “fantastic social atmosphere”. When still in bed at 12pm with a nasty hangover the day an essay they’ve failed to complete is due in, many students decide that this lifestyle is no longer for them. According to MP Edward Leigh, the drop-out rate is currently at 22%- if said people were not paying back the tuition fees for the education they had abandoned, it would be up to the tax payer to foot the bill for something that ultimately, has not benefited society. With this in mind, the argument that “people can pay back the money through income tax with their successful graduate jobs” goes out of the proverbial window. Aside from this, making higher education free would encourage more flippant decisions, as the cost of attending university actually forces some people to think twice about their future.

Ultimately, the government has no incentive to change the current system. The amount of young people entering university is still climbing. In 2007, UCAS stated that they received 446,765 applications, 6% more than the previous year. However, the National Audit Office reported that despite the fact that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds constitute half of England’s population, only 28% of first-time, full-time students are from said backgrounds. According to the estimated financial calculator found on the Student Loans Direct website, a student entering university for the first time whose parents earn a total of £30,000 is eligible for a maintenance loan of £3365 and a grant of £2002. Despite having a system that works better than any previous system for students from a working class background, still not enough are attending. This year, fewer than half of 16 year olds left school with five good (A*-C grades including English and Maths) GCSEs. It is for reasons like these that it follows that government money can be far better spent targeting primary, secondary and further education; as scrapping tuition fees would not assist those who need help the most.

Now of course, since I wrote this tuition fees have increased three-fold to an eye-watering £9000 a year, so how does that colour the situation? Graduating with £27,000 of debt is an unholy prospect, but let's review: Graduates won’t repay their loan until they earn over £21,000 and even then the monthly payments will be less than they were under the the former government; with many students never having to pay back the debt before it is written off (simply because it is so much).

Let's look at this quote from Sarah Teather, former Liberal Democrat Education secretary:

Less well-off students now have a very different experience of higher education. They are more likely to work to support themselves, with their degrees potentially suffering as a result. If the cap on fees is lifted, we will see even greater incentive for students to choose their course on the basis of cost rather than quality. Fundamentally, I believe that access to higher education should be about what’s in your head, not what’s in your pocket.

However, poorer students can still receive generous grants contributing to the cost of living. My knowledge of how easy it is to support oneself at university may be slightly biased, as I attended university in Birmingham where the cost of living is relatively low; but let's not forget that universities also dole out their own grants in the form of Access to Learning Funds. Sarah Teather also asserts that students may go for cheaper rather than quality; but if the "quality" courses can justify their expense surely they will yield higher returns. Since everyone will graduate with huge amounts of debt, at least the system is not "unequal". Ms Teather obviously came round to the economic realities as she voted for raising the cap to £9000.

Apart from a very slightly irritating writing style which is both needlessly accusatory and which places an overemphasis on imagery (I really hate that now), my article makes one or two bold assumptions; the main one being that university is always worthwhile for an individual and is beneficial to society as a whole, and this is the part which I think is the most incorrect. University applications are also down for the second year running, but is that a bad thing? Graduate Fog reports that a 21-year-old graduate now has the same chance of being out of work as a 16-year-old school leaver with one GCSE and let's not even get started on the problem of "underemployment". So to summarise: free education may still not be economically viable, but I also feel like our generation has been coerced into believing that university is what young people should do as they exit a school system which has not adequately prepared them for a world of work (myself included). That last part might be a rant for another entry.

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