Not just £9000

It’s been a while since I blogged about my opinions on science or being a student – it’s about time I dusted off my soapbox!

This year the Government announced it would allow universities in England to charge up to £9000 per academic year. Most universities were quick to set their 2012 fees at that rate, meaning a minimum debt of £21000 for a three year course, not including the cost of living.

People I speak to who’ve already been through university have mixed opinions about whether they would pay the fees, some would and some said they wouldn’t have gone to university. When I think about what I do now, and what I’d like to do in the future, it’s hard to think that I could do it without a university degree. So I guess I would have had to burden myself with the debt. But what about those who say university wouldn’t be worth the price?

(Yes, it rained on my graduation…that’s why I’m doing a PhD, so I get to graduate again…)

I’m not trying to compare a university education with saying “oh I’d buy those shoes if they cost “£20, but they’re just not worth £400”. Because frankly education probably shouldn’t have a pricetag. But the fact that some people would not pay £9000 for a degree tells us several key points.

Firstly, some degree courses do not match the price given to them. For a science degree with daily lectures, hours of lab classes, free field trips and plenty of dissertation supervision in a well-equipped university you may well be rewarded for your investment. But three hours a week of politics lectures? I know university is supposed to promote independent study but a £9000 library card is more than slightly overpriced.

Secondly, not everyone going to university should really be there. I’m not saying it’s their fault. I imagine few people openly go to university purely to spend three years drinking cheap beer and getting 10% off at Topshop. But as a reasonably intelligent, middle class teenager at a middle class school I was really given little other option but university, and I imagine many other people felt the same. You could make it without one, they said, but it would be a gamble, without structured apprenticeships or placement schemes for 18 year olds who knew where you’d end up?

The issue here is about more than student fees but it’s not one that can be solved overnight. I’m a strong believer in cutting student numbers, maybe by 50%, but I realise it’s not something easily achieved. The government would have to rethink work schemes and A-levels (which prepare you for university but little else in life). Almost every sizable town and city in the UK now has a university who receives a large proportion of its running costs from student fees/the government – what would happen to our research sector and employment rates?

The student fees are an arbitrary figure, it is debt that never even crosses into your own bank account. The main barrier stopping those from lower income families attending university is the cost of living; I went to a university where the fees for university-owned halls were greater than the student loan and so I know very few people who didn’t receive some sort of help from their parents. And being such an abstract debt it is one many people will take on, because it is the path they have been expected to take since they were younger, because their friends are, because they have few other options, because they’re promised bright things on the other side. And yes, because a good university education should be a pretty amazing thing.

Which leaves us, as a country, where? With millions of people taking on debt with no certainty of ever paying it all back. As you can see, I don’t have any answers – but I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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