By Stewart Owadally
The steady increase in the level of tuition fees has been, naturally, an important topic throughout 6th form colleges, schools and Universities over the last decade or so. The introduction of “top-up” fees recently did as much as treble the tuition fee bills in some Universities. Of course, any fee increases are met with opposition. In a country like Britain, which claims to be a modern civilised democracy, it is entirely reasonable to argue that those with the talent and work ethic should be able to pursue excellence in education at no personal financial expense.
The reality is that we must assess what we actually want from our higher education system. There is certainly a very convincing argument that the rise in tuition fees was a result one of the biggest mistakes of the Blair government: the “50% to University” pledge. The intention may seem good, but merely pledging to put 50% of school-leavers into University has a number of damaging side-effects. One such side-effect was the conversion of polytechnics into Universities. The truth is that the polytechnics provided vocational courses in which the teaching was made to apply more to working life. They may have been seen as less desirable to attend, but a better solution would have been to improve them and improve the standards of facilities and teaching to enhance the vocational education that they provided. Over 30 of these institutions were converted to Universities. This meant the courses became less vocational and the education that was provided was now less relevant to future jobs.
If we take recent events, it is clear that these institutions may have helped to maintain a healthy manufacturing sector; a manufacturing sector that we could have fallen back on when our services sector went kaput. At the moment, manufacturing accounts for about 13% of GDP compared to the services sector which accounted for 74% on 2007. The services, or tertiary, sector holds the sort of majority on the total GDP of the UK that political parties could only dream of holding in the House of Commons. Further to that, 2.8m people are employed in manufacturing and around 2m in construction compared to 25.18m employed in services sector. So it is obvious that a collapse in the services sector, as happened recently with the financial services collapse, would wreak havoc on a country so reliant on it. With that in mind, a growth in the manufacturing sector is essential and the polytechnics, or similar institutions, could be crucial in stimulating that growth for the future.
In addition, the Blair pledge meant that all of those who went into University, including the newly converted polytechnics, came out with degrees. Degrees used to be a big, big deal! They used to guarantee you a job. They used to guarantee that any potential employer would treat you with respect. However now, I, like others, do not even get asked about my degree in job interviews sometimes. Standards have sunk, and unless you have a good degree from a top, top University, you don’t get that esteem any more. This has meant that hard working, gifted students in some very good Universities get their possession of a degree devalued because of the endless amount of people with one.
So what do we have to consider? Well, if we all want to go to University in our hordes like we do today, fees are necessary. Government simply cannot fund us all. But surely a better way of reforming the system would be to simply ensure that all of those who earn the right to attend University, by working hard at school and in 6th form or college, displaying their talents and demonstrating their excellence, get the chance to go to University to further their education for free. This would mean ensuring the end to the elitist admissions to the top Universities; Oxford’s intake of students from less privileged backgrounds has regressed, not progressed. It would also mean ensuring that school standards improve, so that those who are academically gifted and work hard are allowed to let their talents flourish; whether from Hackney or Hastings.
So now we are faced with increased tuition fees and University funding cuts from the new Conserv…sorry, Coalition Government. Well, this will probably mean departments shutting down and maybe even whole Universities shutting down. But could this be a good thing? If it starts to redress the balance between academic institutions and vocational institutions, then these cuts may be a blessing in disguise. Of course, there would have to be an initial shock as fees go up. But slowly, we could rebuild institutions that offer vocational schemes and applied education for work to try and stimulate a bit of growth in sectors of the economy other than finance and services. It may not be the era to suggest it, but the fact is that we don’t all deserve to go to University. But, far from a return to the elitist old days, we need to try our best to forge a new equal opportunities meritocracy in higher education. Just something to think about before we bemoan the new government’s plans and LibDem “u-turning” on their tuition-fee-abolishment promise.
Stewart Owadally is a Labour Party activist. You can follow him on Twitter: @sowadally