Wednesday, November 03, 2010

university tuition fees (and stuff)

In what Universities Minister David Willetts described as a “progressive” reform, the Coalition Government has decided that universities will be able to charge annual tuition fees of up to £9,000 (from the current maximum of £3,290 pa). Costs will be transferred from the state to students. Willetts feels that the tuition fee rise is a “good deal for students” (really?) and confirmed that universities charging higher levels of fees will have to show support for widening access to students from economically poorer backgrounds – this would apparently mean the type of outreach programmes that many universities already carry out, such as summer schools and targeted scholarships. Mr Willetts said graduates earning less than £21,000 per year would not pay any real interest on loans, but rates would rise to inflation plus 3% at £41,000 per year and above.
The National Union of Students dubbed the plan, which will mean almost a threefold increase, "an outrage". NUS president, Aaron Porter, said Liberal Democrat MPs who were going to ditch their election pledge to vote against any rise in fees should be "ashamed of themselves" and I have to say, I agree.
In January 2003, I wrote to the then Education and Skills Minister, Charles Clarke, on the subject – and particularly in connection with the education of prospective architects from lower income families. This is just a brief extract:
“….This all leaves me with a real sense of despair for the future and, in particular, the pressures being exerted on this country's young people - both today and in the future…. Life in one's 20s has always been demanding financially, but today's graduates are now facing worrying fresh challenges with potentially-huge student loan repayments on top of high mortgage (or rent) costs - and, of course, the Government is now also demanding that they start to make arrangements for their pension provisions!
Through the actions of successive Governments (and despite the current Government's stated goal that 50% of all children should go on to "enjoy" higher/university education), we are sadly faced with a situation where it is now far more difficult, financially, for someone from a lower income/working class background to look forward to the prospect of university education than it was in my day in the mid-1960s. Despite the Government's latest "tinkering" to avoid top-up fees (I'm against them on principle), I fear that university education will soon only be available for those who have the financial means to afford it (nothing about ability or "education for all" aspirations). What an awful reflection on our society today!
I regularly participate in career conventions for young people (aged 13-16 predominantly) and, whilst I have been impressed their knowledge and enthusiasm, I know just how concerned the vast majority of them are regarding the prospective financial implications of higher education (with prospects of owing well in excess of £20,000 for architectural students, for example, will there be ANY architects in future coming from working class backgrounds?)”.
Unfortunately, this debt figure of “well in excess of £20,000” has now increased to staggering levels (architecture is a seven year course – of which five years are spent at university) – perhaps upwards of £80,000?
I accept that I don’t really have any of the answers, but I do think we’ll be getting back to the depressing prospect of a world of the “haves” and “have nots”.
PS: if you can stand it, check out my blog post on similar issues in November 2006 (click here).

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