I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. I am about to make myself very unpopular. But, well, fine girrafes never buttered no unicycles, so here goes – I’m in favour of the Coalition Government’s aim to raise the cap on university tuition fees. For the political background to this, and how the issue is forcing Liberal Democrats, finally, to wake up to the realities of government, I recommend this article from columnist Anne McElvoy.
The financial background, I believe, is, roughly, as follows. At present, the taxpayer (that’s me) underwrites university teaching to the tune of around £7bn per year, and the government would reduce this burden to around £4bn. At present, students at universities pony up to £3,000 per year towards their tuition fees, whereas the real cost is more like £7,000, and rather more for science. The idea is that universities make up the deficit in public subscription by raising the ceiling on tuition fees.
I don’t see what’s wrong with this. Most students will fund their education by loans, which, according to the current plans, will only become repayable if the student gets a job paying more than £21,000 a year. This is quite a hefty wedge - here in Norfolk a good annual wage is around £16,000. Basically, the government will still be underwriting the tuition fees of many students, with those least able to pay benefiting most from this arrangement.
Now, you may well ask, how could I be so callous – hypocritical, even – when my own university education was almost entirely paid for by the state? Others of my generation, motivated by such nostalgia, feel that as we got away Scot scot-free, then so must subsequent generations. This is nonsense. That was then, and this is now, and the past, as the man said, is a different country.
The problem is that the higher-education sector is running at far too high a capacity. When I was an undergraduate, I think there were around 90 universities in the whole of Britain. In my day, the sector was just small enough to allow the state to fund one’s higher education. Now, I believe that there are around 130 universities in England alone. The inflation has been created, in part, by the mantra of the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, that 50% of all students should go to university, a diktat that ran counter to employers’ needs or indeed common sense. This inflation needed funding, and so the Labour government was forced to introduce tuition fees (yes, the same Labour party that’s voting against tuition fee rises).
In an ideal world, I’d be for a return to the old system, where there were fewer universities, such that young people with smarts could get decent higher education at the taxpayers’ expense. And that’s a good thing. A country – and all its inhabitants – needs to find a fair and equitable way of educating its bright young people to perform the functions that countries need – lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists. What this taxpayer objects to is paying money so that some finger-pointing spartist can waste time at the University of Nebbish learning about radical feminist golf-course management.
Imposing something more like the real cost of education on students should, I hope, make people entering higher education think more carefully about the courses they plan to undertake. Are they likely to be value for money? Does their university of choice have a good record in training their students for the real world? If some students who otherwise might go to university are put off, and do something more useful instead, this is all to the good – they will probably be happier in the long run, and the dismally high dropout rate from undergraduate courses will, hopefully, fall, as courses will be populated by students with more of a commitment to completing them. Universities, too, will have to make sure that they are up to scratch, as students will be more demanding. It is likely that many courses and departments, and perhaps some universities, will close. Good. Perhaps this long-overdue exercise in fiscal propriety will return the higher education sector to the way it was in my day, when you really could get a good university education for very little, rather than a half-hearted one for vast expense.
Am I some fat cat? Fat, possibly, but likely to get thinner as time progresses. These cuts affect everyone. Many people I know in public services are facing redundancy – people like health professionals and librarians, who perform valuable service to the community in the way that radical feminist golf-course managers never could. Mrs Crox will soon be redundant, the victim of cuts in public contracts to the charity for which she works. This will cause measurable problems here at the Maison Des Girrafes. Most of us, in the disenfranchised middle classes, are working harder and harder for less and less. I’m not saying that just because we’re having a tough time, then nobody else should have any fun. I’m saying that there is a constituency in academic fairyland that really needs to get out more, and take time to understand where the money comes from to fund their indulgences. But before they do, they should take my advice and dress warmly. ‘Cos baby, it’s cold outside.