The Village Pump Soapbox
There seems some possibility that, during the next parliament, and probably sooner in that parliament rather than later if Tony Blair has his way, the Government will allow some universities to increase the fees demanded of students. They see it as not unreasonable to get the students to borrow the money on the grounds that they estimate that, during their working life and based on past experience, a university graduate will earn £400,000 more than a non-graduate. As Ms Hodge, the Minister for Higher Education, succinctly put it "Why should the dustman subsidise the Doctor?".
One obvious disadvantage of this plan, however, is that the more prestigious universities will be the one's most likely to have the largest top-up requirement so that students from a poorer background will tend to be excluded from the better institutions. Furthermore it is a false argument to suggest that the state funding of university education is an unfair burden on the taxpayer since, if someone earns £400,000 extra, as they claim, then, allowing for income tax, fuel tax, VAT on everything purchased and other forms of taxation, both national and local, approximately £200,000 of that finds its way back into national and local government coffers. So, if the government subsidises students to become graduates, they will find that their investment pays off handsomely. Of course their argument that a graduate will earn an extra £400,000, which is based on past performances, may not hold in the future, as the proportion of young people going to university increases, but, if it does not hold, the justification for expecting the student to pay becomes questionable. Already we hear of graduates finding difficulty in obtaining suitably rewarding employment. Similarly, of course, my argument that the government will get a good return on its investment may not hold, for the same reasons.
The government is set upon the desire to see fifty percent of the population attending university and, with this aim in mind, they clearly have got a problem on how to fund it, but to allow a situation where a limit to the number attending a particular institution is obtained by the ability of the student's family to pay, must be wrong. It seems to me, therefore, that the aim of getting fifty percent into university needs to be challenged. This is especially so, to my mind, when we see the strange and outlandish fields of study now being offered by some universities. The consequence of cramming more students into the universities without a corresponding increase in the funding also means that there is a fall in the standard of education represented by a degree and many posts that used to require a degree now require a post-graduate degree, which puts further financial pressure on the student. Furthermore, encouraging so many to go to university tends to devalue a university degree. A secondary effect is that it tends to reduce the numbers wanting to study and train for the more practical type of employment. As a consequence we are already seeing a shortage of properly trained electricians, plumbers, builders, construction workers and technicians of all types. Many of these skilled trades are now earning salaries comparable with, and in some cases better than, those obtained by many graduates.
It is also short sighted on the part of the government to introduce a financial barrier to the more able students entering university courses in disciplines that the nation needs. We need well trained and qualified medical practitioners, currently there is a serious shortfall in the number of doctors in this country and efforts are made to attract doctors from overseas whose training and education may not be to the standard that we would wish to see. Education may be expensive but it is not nearly as costly as ignorance. To keep up with other nations in this competitive world we need scientists in all fields, from biology and bio-chemistry to micro-electronics and nuclear physics. We need architects and engineers and those well educated in business studies. There are, no doubt, many other fields of study that are also important to the well being of the nation, and it is madness on the part of government not to invest in individuals wishing to pursue such courses. In my view there needs to be some selectivity when it comes to fees and grants for students so that those attending courses deemed to be of the greatest value to society receive the greatest amount of financial support.
I suppose it could be argued that, no matter what course of study that is followed, a university education does tend to improve the individual's ability to analyse a problem/situation and it should improve their ability to articulate a point of view. It seems unlikely, however, that the nation can afford to fund students on these courses if improved articulation is the only really useful result. Perhaps, if schools were less intent upon producing university fodder they could develop these skills more in the sixth form. I have the impression that the Americans make a better job of developing these skills than we do. Maybe, judging by George Bush, they do that at the expense of teaching geography.