Scrapping tuition fees may not be the answer…

As the various parties jockey for position to paint themselves as the party of the people and increasingly ludicrous and often uncosted promises are wheeled out to entice the voter, Labour have announced a series of sweeping education funding reforms that would see the abolition of university fees alongside a series of cash injections from the early years and beyond should they gain power. Certainly increased funding for nursery hours for working parents would be a useful shot in the arm for industry, however I remain unconvinced that the scrapping of university fees would halt the downward spiral that higher education is experiencing.

Once upon a time when university was free for all there was less pressure or need to go to university, students weren’t pushed and cajoled into pursuing degrees that wouldn’t materially benefit their future prospects. Which was fine, because the academic pursued academic pursuits and the more vocationally minded learned the skills needed to forge a career in whatever area it was they chose to go into. You could argue that this created a two tier system of Upstairs, Downstairs and yes, perhaps that is true but we didn’t have yawning chasms within crucial skills areas. The introduction of fees that followed firmly on the back of the promotion of the ‘university for everyone’ mantra meant that very quickly cynical universities were filling their coffers just as quickly as they could and it became a self -fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t go to university you don’t have a shot at a career, the degree is all and without it you may as well resign yourself to a life on benefits. So went the rhetoric and eventually it sort of became true, employers began to insist on degrees as it became increasingly hard to differentiate between candidates. Schools picked up on that and relentlessly flogged the university at any cost horse and universities got fatter and greedier and so the prices rose ever upwards.

All the while key skills were having to be imported from overseas, primarily in areas like healthcare and via agency workers, which in turn meant budgets for education had to be stolen from and fees rose again to make up the short fall. Eventually the great promise of an assured career with a shiny new degree didn’t immediately materialize because the salary expectations of a graduate given the debt they are now carrying means that importing workers is more cost effective. The whole thing has been a house of cards waiting to fall and already with the rise of the modern apprenticeship we can see more and more the absolute lack of necessity for many, many people to go to university. Finally we have something approaching a more balanced approach to its longer term benefits (apart from within schools themselves who refuse to acknowledge the changes that are coming.)

By removing the fees, other than saddling the taxpayer with an estimated £11 Billion bill to foot year on year we are dangerously close to banging the university for all drum again regardless of whether it makes sense for an individual to do so. Crucially at a point when a more pragmatic and balanced world view around vocational vs university seems within our grasp. I would absolutely support a cap like so many of the EU countries have but the senseless promotion of university for all is divisive and costly not egalitarian and noble as has been suggested.

It’s bad for employers, it’s bad for taxpayers, it devalues the degree just when there’s the chance it could once again mean something, it tacitly suggests that removing the barriers would make it the default option and it begins the whole cycle again. All of which is happening when we’re about to leave the EU and more than ever we need skilled workers in house and universities that can afford to keep pace with their European counterparts. There should never have been fees in the first place but now they are in place let’s just leave well enough alone before the whole jalopy is upset again by well meaning but ultimately short sighted politicians.

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