As I write this I’ve just watched a ‘peaceful’ protester throw a 10kg fire extinguisher off the roof of 30 Millbank at the Police attempting to regain order below. A low point in the protest that saw 30 odd thousand students, lecturers, anti-cuts, anti-war, anarchist, trots and others take to the street to protest about the Government’s plans to raise University tuition fees.
The plan to raise fees would see fees which currently average around £3,000 (3,500.- €) double in most cases and peak at up to £9,000 (10,600.- €) in the most outstanding institutions. This at the highest end of the scale is being reported as having the potential to leave a student £40,000 (47,000.- €) in debt at the end of their course.
It’s clearly a lot of money – but, let’s have a quick fact check at some of the things that have been said about this plan:
First – no matter what media you indulge yourself in, you can’t help but have noticed the number of students claiming they wouldn’t be able to go to university at all if the fees were raised. This simply isn’t the case – the student funding mechanism is not going to change in the respect that it stumps up the money in the first place, no student would be unable to get this – thus no student would not be able to attend.
Second – it’s been widely ignored by the student unions and sympathetic media that the student funding mechanism is actually becoming fairer with students able to earn more initially before there student loan is deducted from their wage. This means that they can begin to establish a career using the degree before they start to pay back the loan.
Third – you can’t protest by spraying anarchy symbols on things then demand that the state pay your education fees: you’re misunderstanding the very concept of anarchy.
With those uncomfortable truths in the open we can continue. You see the problem here is nothing to do with university funding, it runs much deeper than that: the real problem lies in why so many of our young people today believe vehemently that they’ll not be able to get a job without a degree, and further that they must attend university to study (it does not matter what) in order to complete the educational tick-list.
The truth is that the degree has been entirely devalued. A degree used to be a symbol of professional achievement in a field – your degree almost always led directly to a particular specialism in the working world or to an academic career. Now many students study fields that they’ll never refer to in their working life, many more leave with degrees which are out of date, irrelevant or inappropriate. Labour saw the degree not as an academic key, but rather as an issue of class – so they manipulated it, it became the benchmark to which you must aspire. This was done quite cynically, it allowed the Labour party to manipulate youth unemployment figures with gay abandon, and it generated a reason to reach out to their core constituencies with a real chance of ‘betterment’.
They knew this would cost money of course, so in 1997 they controversially removed the free education at university level for those meritorious enough to warrant admission to undergraduate education and put in place a semi-affordable loan scheme that wouldn’t seem like too much money for most in good economic times and would give a decent enough level of interest to keep it looking semi-affordable for the public purse.
Except the plan backfired. University applications went through the roof – Universities simply couldn’t keep up with demand, clearing became a national news item as millions of students clammered to scoop up what was left in the bucket if they didn’t get their choice of university. Oversubscribed the system began to look very underfunded – many universities turned to commercial grants with varying degrees of success (academically, morally and economically). Others simply struggled by – safe in the knowledge that there was always a drop out rate, and that so long as they could make it to the end of the budget year without irritating too many lecturers about their pay, they’d probably get a year on year increase in next year’s money.
The youth unemployment issue moved from one demographic to another – rather than school leavers bumming around at home, kicking their heals and discovering the dole office, we had graduates cramming themselves into ruthlessly competitive graduate schemes, willing to take, in some cases, unimaginably poor contractual employment conditions in order to wedge their foot in the door of super-brand-name PLC or Sherlock, Watson, Ironside and Poroit LLP.
On the other side of this catastrophic backfiring was the unforgivable profligacy of certain educational institutions – courses cropped up in just about everything: from things that were once considered to be valuable vocational training areas, to the mickey mouse degrees ranging from Media Studies to Klingon. All guaranteed to give a few letters after your name, a semi-respectable university certificate and the ‘pride’ of saying your got a 2:1.
Pandora’s box was firmly opened, and the government were now up against the wall – they made vocational training a dirty word, traditional apprenticeships almost totally disappeared, replaced with decidedly doublethink term of the ‘Modern Apprenticeship’ which at times was used as little more than a bribe to get people off one sort of benefit and onto another.
The students that were on the streets today were for the most part peaceful – it is unfair to tar them all as violent – what isn’t unfair however is to say that the arguments these students have don’t add up. In one breath they say “we need to go to university to get a job that pays properly” and then in another they say “but we’re not willing to pay for it, and furthermore everyone – regardless of whether they have a university education or not should pay for my education.”. If they truly believe that a university degree will result in a lifetime of significantly higher earning potential then it’s not unreasonable that they should contribute more to that education in line with the market and actual value of the services that they’re being provided with? It’s hypocrisy on a massive scale to say anything other than that.
I think however that if a significant number of the students that were protesting today had a long and considered think about their future, they’d come to the uncomfortable truth. Many degrees are done blindly, many are just vanity papers. Indeed research by human resources departments of our major firms often find that the majority of degrees held in the corporate world in the UK have virtually nothing to do with the day to day operation of the corporation. The vanity of having a degree has been built up by a whole generation of teaching staff – it’s been drummed into our young people and they’re suffering for it financially – a graduate in many areas of work can be 4 years behind their non-graduate colleagues, and experience is worth so much more to employers that being a graduate could be seen as being a positive barrier to competing at a job interview.
Where the truth becomes properly painful, is that we’re all paying for this – we’re paying for education that isn’t worth the paper the certificate is printed on, we’re paying for poor institutions doling out bog-standard degrees to below standard students. Our academic research and talent development is flagging behind our international competitors because we’re not funding our top-flight institutions properly and we’re not investing in the truly gifted, preferring instead an adequate, average, middle-class, middle-england 24 year old with a degree in sociology. Most important though, until we change this obsession with a university education or bust we’re losing a valuable asset in our economic society – vocationally trained artisans and specialists.
Bottom line, We’re letting down our young people – they know this, they’re just not quite sure where yet.