We cannot allow universities to become the province of ‘rich kids’, says Simon Heffer. telegraph.co.uk
A responsible society maximises the potential of its people. This is not just out of compassion, to ensure they are fulfilled and not frustrated. It is also in the self-interest of that society, which benefits from productive, independent and successful citizens. It has long been understood that education is the key to this: Cardinal Newman and Matthew Arnold made the point in the mid-19th century, long before either RA Butler or even the Robbins report had been heard of. While not perfect in its conclusions, Lord Browne’s report on funding higher education, published yesterday, proposes many sensible steps – but it is only a start.
If we accept that society should see that everyone equal to a proper university education, irrespective of his or her means or background, should have one – and we must – then how do we achieve that aim? First, we do what Lord Browne suggests and remove the cap on tuition fees. We do this even if it means some high-end institutions charging £12,000 a year, or more, for demanding degrees such as medicine or engineering. We do this because the alternative is these institutions sacrificing their reputations by offering poorer courses, fewer courses, having fewer good teachers, and quite probably educating fewer students.
Cambridge colleges, for example, subsidise each undergraduate to the tune of around £4,000 a year out of their endowments. These endowments are shrinking.
The popular belief that the old universities are rolling in money is wrong. A handful of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge are rich; most are not, and those that are not are considerably poorer than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Teaching staff are pitifully badly paid, considering the standards required of them to get a job. This is true of most Russell Group universities. If we wish to have universities that educate our brightest young people to a high level, and that award them degrees that genuinely signify a high capacity for thought and intelligence, the present arrangements are unsustainable.
With the cap taken off, students will have to make a new series of decisions. A market will operate among institutions, as it should.
A young person faced with substantial and expensive debt to finance a university education will ask him or herself: will the education I am going to get be worth it? This is not just a crude calculation about whether the salary likely to be commanded once the degree has been obtained would enable the loan to be repaid easily. It is also about whether the course being considered is likely to be sufficiently stimulating to merit the financial sacrifice. This consideration appears not to exist in the present era of cheap education, otherwise we must presume that a course such as Wastes Management with Dance, offered by Northampton University (a former technical college), would not exist.
This may result in fewer people choosing to go to university. It ought not to result in fewer talented people going to university. It will mean that people who are not academically gifted will judge that going to work, and learning on the job the skills they need to do it properly, is a far more beneficial use of their time and money than going to something that is allowed to call itself a university, and doing something that is permitted to be called a degree course, when in truth the former remains a vocational training college and the latter nothing but a diploma in a vocational study.
The last Labour government’s “target” of getting 50 per cent of young people into something called a “university” was not merely fatuous. It was also highly damaging. It spread precious resources too thinly, especially by diverting them away from able students from poor backgrounds. It devalued the notion of a university and of a degree. It misled employers and, most tragically, misled many students. Not every young person wants to go to university to enjoy three years of sex, drugs and alcohol. Quite a few want a qualification that will help them get on in life. In this, many are disappointed. A market will now operate, and it would be no surprise to see some institutions go out of business. It would serve them right.
But what of the able student from a poor home, capable intellectually of securing a place at Oxbridge or another Russell Group university, and leaving there with a good degree of serious quality, who is now deterred by debt? This is the main concern arising from Lord Browne’s proposals, for it will damage society if such young people are denied, through fear of debt, the education they merit. It would return us to the 19th century, to the era before county scholarships. It would compromise standards in the best universities for them to become the province just of rich kids; this must not be allowed to happen. Some means of support from outside a loans system will be necessary.
That burden must fall on potential employers. The boom of the 1980s, in which so-called barrow boys, once given the opportunity, showed how good they were at making money for their employers, proved that one did not need to be an Oxbridge-educated ex-public schoolboy to have talent. Businesses know that the people who will keep them in profit are to be found in all parts of society; but their pool of potential graduate trainees will seriously contract when young people who fear debts of £40,000 or £50,000 (not just their tuition fees, but their living costs too) decide to do something else. If businesses want good young people they will have to pay universities specifically to train them. This means bursaries, endowments, sponsorships or very low-cost loans. This benefits everyone concerned. The business gets its talent; the student gets the education he or she deserves; and the university does not have to lower its standards by admitting on the criterion of wealth instead of the criterion of ability. The alternative, for business, is to be forced to lower its standards in recruiting, or have to pay more to buy talent from overseas. It would be cheaper to grow it at home.
This applies to the state, too.
So long as the state chooses to run a health service, it will need a throughput of trained doctors. So long as it chooses to run most schools, it will need a throughput of teachers. Doctors earn little until they establish a private practice. This often takes until they are in their forties, and some never do it at all. Most teachers do not have that luxury. If Browne is implemented, the state must steel itself to subsidise courses of national importance, with a caveat that those who choose to work outside the state system will be liable to repay the subsidy. Otherwise it is likely that we shall run short of doctors and teachers, their value in the market will rise accordingly, and we shall have to buy them in at greater expense from overseas. That cannot make sense, especially if society is full of potential doctors and teachers frustrated in other jobs, and denied the chance to pursue their vocation.
Lord Browne says the strong must contribute more. That is right. But it misunderstands the fear of high debt among those whom he considers strong, but who are not. It is now up to business, if it has regard to its own future, to forge a partnership with the best universities, and see that the talent of our young people is not squandered.
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