I am starting to get very confused, angry and shocked at some of the positions that are being spouted about the tuition fees increase. From the 15 year old at the NUT conference this week and journalists to opposition politicians and Union representatives – all are coming out with minor variations on an endlessly repeated theme: tuition fees will hinder social mobility.
Tuition fees do not and will not hinder social mobility. Perception that the obstacles are insurmountable will. It is an easy and rhetorically popular device blurring the lines between the two but the distinction is incredibly important. Increasing fees and social mobility are related but not mutually dependent variables. Making something more expensive does not mean that certain people can’t get it. It may take longer to save for the desired item but cost itself does not rule out eventual possession.
Going to university costs vast sums of money. But who should pay? This is arguably where opinion starts to divide:
Option 1 - Higher Education a human right and should be free for all.
If this is your stance then the state should pay. However should the cost of going to university increase due to various factors (numbers going, increased cost of equipment, technological innovation, resource etc.) then logically the state must increase its investment. Where does the money come from? Many options here but the most logical is an increase in tax. Not popular by some politically but again, only logical.
Option 2 - HE is not a human right, and central government shouldn’t pay.
Which begs the question: who does? To answer this we must map out who benefits the most out of a university education? Directly it cannot be argued that it is the students who become more prosperous as a result of their investment. But does that mean they should pay? The British Government makes a huge sum from exporting its graduate talent pool, let alone the research and development. So should the Government contribute? Once this is answered then we must try to gather how which group pays back. A graduate tax? An increase in fees?
Logistical arguments aside, if HEIs can guarantee a high quality education then the students benefit the most. The government and country by association for sure, but students are the ones whose net worth increases. This differs based on the choices that each individual makes: what they study, where they study, when they study it, how well they do, what else they do, why they do it etc.
The average increase in fees to almost £9,000 is not too much to pay. Universities are now on the verge of being in a market. Only the cap currently in place stops it going all the way and this is causing some concern. With a market comes student choice directing the resource. With a market comes consumer judgement about the ‘worth’ of a degree and education. Whose job is it to sell the worth of higher education as an investment?
It is argued that an increase in fees will reduce those from poorer backgrounds entering HE. It won’t. Or at least it shouldn’t. If the motive is pure, if students meet the designated entry criteria; and if you value the experience then nothing will stop you under the new system apart from perception of financial pain.
Unavoidably an increase in fees will make prospective students think twice about going to university. And rightly so. For too long university has been the default mode for some in an arguably disaffected generation to delay skills and knowledge development. Those from families who have few (if any) members that went to university will have a greater hill to climb. But if role models support them and have guided them in an apolitical manner, then there is absolutely no reason why anyone shouldn’t go to university. If it is what they truly want.
‘Choice’ is the buzzword of the Coalition agenda. Ideologically motivated it may be, but the job of the Government is to open doors; not forcefully shove young people through to meet some spurious and PR-driven quota.
As for the argument that this will hinder social mobility; since when did universities become the panacea required to break down the barriers between classes? Has the nation only just acknowledged their worth and have used their existence as a nifty tool for fighting to cause? There are many more barriers to mobility than access to a degree. Let’s face it, increasing or rallying against fees is a much easier target than addressing what I believe is one of the true influences on social aspiration: role models.
I use the term role models to define those that have a direct influence on a child’s perception of the world from a very early age. Parents; guardians; teachers; siblings; friends – all these and more impact strongly on the way we all develop, experience and place ourselves within the world.
The debate should not be about getting more ethic minorities or poorer students into university. The debate should be focused on how the role models themselves can change the startlingly British attitude that universities are ivory towers that only the rich can aspire to. They just aren’t. The sooner we realise that we all play a role in inspiring the next generation (regardless of race or wealth) to invest in their futures the better.