by In Wales
Mon Dec 6th, 2010 at 07:04:32 AM EST
It's been a busy week but still it is remiss of me to have not commented on the protests against Government proposals to increase the cap on University tuition fees.
Back in the day(!) when I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Cardiff, I was lucky enough to start in 1997, the last year where grants were still available (albeit minimal) and no tuition fees were charged. Student loans saw me through on my living expenses and I worked each summer to make up the rest of the money I needed. Doing a chemistry degree involved most days being full of lectures and lab sessions, and being deaf meant that I had to use all of my time outside lectures to catch up on what I missed from not hearing the lectures. The additional reading involved for me was huge. I just didn't have time to work whilst studying.
frontpaged - Nomad
The legislation to introduce fees stemmed from the conclusions of the Dearing report commissioned by John Major in 1996, published in 1997 with the recommendations being implemented in 1998.
See wikipedia and the Guardian timeline for more background. The development of the fees system is horrendously complex, with the devolved nations using their powers to implement different systems.
During 2003/4 when I was President of NUS Wales, the Labour Government were pushing through the Education Bill, containing the highly unpopular proposals for variable fees (top-up fees), allowing universities to charge variable fees up to a maximum of £3k per year. We ran a huge campaign that year, involving demonstrations, petitions, lobbying and protests. When lobbying in Parliament before the second reading, I had MPs crying in front of me because they were under so much pressure to vote for the proposals which they didn't agree with.
I've never agreed with fees, and I certainly don't agree with upping the cap to £9k a year, however it is paid back (repayments, graduate tax etc). You can throw the usual arguments around about it, access to education for students from all backgrounds and not just an elite, graduates who benefit from their education pay more in tax, those who graduate in careers such as nursing work in roles of high social value, people will be deterred by debt and so on.
Had I not received a grant and been unburdened by fees I could not have gone to University, nor did I have a home to go back to outside of term time. My education was my key out of a very bad place with few prospects. My alternative was not a good one, partly due to family circumstances and also due to my disability. Disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. I now have a PhD, I was building a good career and I now run my own business. I don't actually use my degree any more but it has been highly valuable to me.
So what is a university education actually for? I think that is where the argument lies. On a fundamental level, what should students gain from university? What kind of people do we want to be turning out of our higher education sector?
I gained from living independently, meeting new people, volunteering, getting involved in politics, being taught how to think for myself, how to solve problems, how to be disciplined in organising and prioritising life and to be passionate about learning and about developing myself. Those are the transferable skills our graduates need.
We don't need drones, trained up on courses that have been meddled with to extremes by businesses who shouldn't be expecting the public purse to fund specialist training for their organisations, leaving graduates with no flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. We don't want higher education only to be the privilege of the elite, who then continue to dominate in key decision making roles across society, suppressing diversity and only furthering their own interests.
Equally we shouldn't be forcing young people into university when a vocational career is better suited. We need a whole range of skills to drive our economy and the further education sector plays an equally crucial role in providing training and life long learning opportunities to people of all ages. I've benefited as much from courses delivered by FE colleges as I have from my higher education degrees. FE and HE sectors should be valued equally.
This is an area where devolution has played such an important role. In Wales we demonstrate in words and actions how we value skills and vocational training. Schemes such as ProAct and ReAct, helping workers to upskill and retain employment are Welsh initiatives that really show what our values are. The life long learning agenda has benefited from high level commitment. But even so, the FE sector is chronically underfunded.
It is true to say the HE sector is also underfunded. Which brings us back to fees.
Where should the money come from to pay for higher education? I'm a socialist so it is easy for me to say that it should come through taxation because graduates who benefit financially will contribute more in tax but also in skills. Society as a whole benefits from a good education. Driving those values forward is important, for our economy and for our well-being as communities and individuals.
I don't pretend it is an easy issue to solve. I applaud the Welsh Assembly Government for their stance on fees (Welsh domiciled students will not have to pay the top up component of fees) although admittedly I don't know we will afford to plug the funding gap.
I'm not sure I have even begun to address the issues yet, but I felt I needed to comment, because the same arguments are being thrown forth as 6 years ago, but the stakes feel a lot bigger this time around.