There’s been a lot in the news recently about Tony Blair’s new policy for university tuition fees. Not sure if anyone who reads this regularly is not familiar with how it all works over here at the moment, so before I launch into my opinion on the matter, first I’ll give a brief summary of how it used to work and how it currently works.

Before, a distinct minority went to university and received grants to do this. Universities were paid directly by the government for all the UK students that they had and Local Education Authorities gave maintenance grants to all students (not just those who couldn’t afford fees) for living expenses, textbooks, computers etc etc. The specifics of the grant were determined by a number of factors, including whether you were in London area (more expensive) or not.

Currently, many more people go to university once they have finished A-levels (although not all those who attend school go on to do A-levels post-16) than previously. In my humble opinion, the increase in numbers is partly due to the changing job market in the UK (almost all manufacturing jobs have gone now) and also to the move a few years (??) ago to make all polytechnics (colleges, more vocationally focused) into universities, in name if not in standard. A few years ago “top-up” fees were introduced, which help to close the gap in what the government provides for these students and what the universities actually need. These are paid by the students (or in practice, usually their parents) and are means tested in case of hardship. Someone who really can’t afford them won’t have to pay them. Also, maintenance grants have disappeared and students now get loans from the government, which are automatically deducted from them once they start working and earning over a certain amount.

Under Tony Blair’s new scheme, fees would triple (and possibly really start to close the gap in what education costs and what the universities actually get) for students themselves. They would then be in much more debt (estimates are around ?25k per student, for a 3-4 yr course) and this would be paid off once they are working. It has been shown though, that for certain courses where graduates do not earn significantly more once they have finished the course there will be people who work their entire lives to just pay off the interest on these loans, rather than any of the capital. Obviously not an ideal situation. Most of this is because of the Labour party’s stated intention to have 50% of young people going to university after leaving school.

I can understand why Blair has proposed all this. I can also understand why the National Union of Students is getting so upset. There are a number of problems with this implementation of plans to help ease the burden of further education. Personally, however, I really do think that they are shooting at the wrong targets.

Firstly, if you want 50% of kids to go to university, then your university degree has turned into something that it shouldn’t be. Going to university isn’t about teaching you specific skills for a specific job. Yet for so many people this is why they go to university and what their university course aims to teach them. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t want 50% of our school-leavers to go into jobs that require them to use their brains. Just that possibly bringing back an intermediate qualification (like the “diploma” that some countries have from technical colleges), would be a more useful way of getting these students from A-level to a further qualification and on into the job market. This would massively reduce the number of students going to university (which, traditionally has had a much more academic focus) and make the funding picture look very different.

Now, the first argument against this is that then the university-goers are an elite. Granted, this will happen. I think that this is a “better elite” (if such a thing exists) than that created by Blair’s plans, where only rich kids will feel they can afford university, leaving many able & clever kids going straight into dead-end jobs because they can’t face the risk of that much debt from the outset. An elite created because some want to do a more vocational degree than an academic one would be much less of a social issue, IMHO.

This would also solve some of the funding crisis. I’m currently studying Computer Science, at a traditional academic university. My course takes three years, partly because the focus is at more of an abstract level. If all they needed to do was teach me how to program in C, Java, HTML, PHP, some object-oriented design, databases and a smattering of software engineering, then I’m sure I could be in, educated and out the door into the job market in a year. So this would reduce the cost of getting me educated and into a job by two thirds. I think this could be done for a large number of courses and would do a lot for the university funding and also for the students involved. Even if the government claims to want no stratification in education, there is blatant stratification in the job market and perhaps it would be sensible to stream people a little better earlier on.

Why not do this for all degree courses (or all universities)? Well, because we still need academic development. Some people have a lot to contribute to their given disciplines … we need researchers, lecturers and people to take new developments into the business world. To me, this is the role of a traditional university. The sort of stratification I’m proposing has been implemented with great success in a number of countries, particularly in Europe.

But the proposals will be voted on soon … and such massive reform of the entire system is likely to be hugely expensive and not something Labour will embark on lightly. So what happens if the plans go ahead? My prediction would be that exactly the same thing will happen. People will figure out for themselves that not everyone needs to go to uni for 3 years and that possibly vocational training would be a better bet. Unfortunately many will be scared off and this will be a bitter loss for the UK economy. At first the rich will form an elite and eventually steps will be taken to re-open the academic experience to those with the brains to match, rather than the wallets. And in ten years time we’ll be working under the sort of system I describe … where a school-leaver has a number of choices …. and hopefully a lot of help deciding what will be the best plan for them.

[NOTE: I’m classed as an overseas student for fees purposes, so none of this affects me directly. I already pay very significant fees and get no student loan, so have bank debt to face rather than the lovely repayments my fellow classmates face. I’m trying to take an objective look at the education system in the UK and look at possible solutions, not support a particular party or whatever. Just FYI so flames are well directed 😉 ]