Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Mancunion Article: The State of Higher Education

Published in The Mancunion, to accompany and oppose this piece, in the issue of 10/01/11.

Real life is thoroughly blocking decent blogging at the minute. To tide us over, here is a short counter-argument I wrote for the Manchester student paper, defending tuition fees.
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Ever since the government set the target of fifty per cent of school-leavers attending university in the nineties, the higher education system has been struggling to adapt. The surge in student numbers has hugely overstretched university resources, and also raised the cost of higher education massively. Despite the hopes of the government, the graduate premium produced by a small proportion of young people going through university and into the professions was not simply conferred upon the swollen ranks of the new graduates. Instead, we have seen the devaluation of degrees and chronic graduate over-qualification and unemployment. With fierce competition in the current job market, more jobs now require a degree for a successful application - sucking more school leavers into higher education and fuelling the downward spiral.

The view I share with successive governments is that variable tuition fees are the answer to these problems. Tuition fees allow a student to decide for themselves whether or not a degree is worth the investment of time and money required, and serves to discourage people taking degrees that they don’t envision making a sufficient return – be that material or personal. In addition to covering the costs of higher education, by reducing the number of students they allow universities to concentrate their resources more effectively. By placing a tangible cost on your degree they incentivise hard work to get your money’s worth. And by staunching the flow of graduates flooding the employment market, they will help to stem degree devaluation and the graduate surplus, with its trickle down effects of raising barriers to employment for non-graduates who would otherwise be perfectly capable of doing the job.

My problem with the alternatives is that they encourage a high number of wasteful degrees, serve to penalise those who get good jobs out of their hard work and are innately unfair. Having higher education be free as it was before 1998 would be ruinously expensive and would require further tax rises on the working population, whilst a ‘graduate tax’ makes a poor return degree a risk-free option by having economically productive students pick up the tab for the rest as well as their own education. In either case, the burden of a lot of low-value degrees is placed upon the shoulders of the hard working.

There are as many definitions of fairness as there are human beings, but I do not believe that a degree is an entitlement. Nobody else owes you the right to spend three years as a student. If you value a degree enough to foot the bill for it you will, and if you don’t that is your decision and responsibility. Government grants and student loans mean that anyone who wants to go to university can do so without worrying about the upfront costs. But if you don’t think that your degree will boost your income enough to be worth paying for, you should reconsider it.

As for the commodification of higher education, it is really an inevitable consequence of trying to hugely raise student numbers. University has shifted from simply being a natural stage in the life-cycle of the professional classes to a competitive investment in your employment prospects. There simply isn’t room in the ivory towers for fifty per cent of school leavers, and there never was.

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