Counting the cost of education

Alexander Pannett 9.12am

The world of British higher education has so far had an eventful 2011.  Student riots, soaring tuition fees and most recently the apoplectic response by many left wing academics to A C Grayling’s proposed £18,000 a year New College of the Humanities, have sown deep divisions amongst the university establishment.  Many have argued that the move towards an American style higher education system marks the death of public education in the UK, while others have countered that it is needed to direct much needed resources into a starved and failing system. 

  I have to confess that I have always leaned against the concept of private education.  I do not believe this stems from envy, nor from the fact that my grammar school’s most important rugby event was the annual grudge match against the nearby public school.  I merely believe that it is a more efficient use of resources to allocate education on meritocratic grounds rather than on a parent’s ability to accumulate capital.  Any economy suffers from diminished productivity when nepotism is rewarded over ability.  A higher education system without private institutions is a much fairer guarantor of equality of opportunity than a two-tier system that entrenches undeserved privilege and undermines social mobility.

However, my own experience of higher education has thrown doubt on my well-meaning principles.  I read History at one of the country’s top universities, expecting to interact and learn from some of the finest academic minds in the country.  Instead, I was rather shocked to find that lectures were banally simple in their content and seminars were “student-led” absurdities, packed with enough people to resemble a small lecture hall.  The only teaching was the occasional stammer of wisdom from a tutor perched insouciantly in the corner, carefully engaged in whatever exotic hot drink their recent research trip had reaped from the department’s funds.

Now, this system is fine if all you need from university is a degree certificate, a lot of good parties and an aptitude for blagging.  But what skills have you actually learnt?  Certainly few that will be of much use to an employer.  This again may have been fine in the halcyon days of yesteryear, but globalisation now means that UK graduates compete in a global marketplace.  A UK student who lacks the skills that an employer is looking for will be caught out early in their career and likely passed over for one of the teeming masses of highly skilled and ambitious Asian and American graduates.

The higher education system needs more resources, fresh ideas and more time for teaching rather than research.  Grayling’s new college allows these pragmatic goals to be achieved.  It will also offer bursaries for poor students from the fees generated from richer students.  This is an excellent idea that if applied to public universities would mean richer families and not taxpayers fund poorer students.  If managed effectively, this would be a much more progressive system than allowing for more affluent sections of society to receive education that is effectively subsidised through the Student Loans Company by poorer taxpayers.

Whilst I still believe that higher education should remain free, in an age of dwindling resources and rampant competition, we must be pragmatic if we are to remain a country of world-class learning.  A university system that shuns innovation and ignores the needs of its students will decline in standards.  A lack of choice and competition breeds complacency and poor results.  However, whilst private institutions should be welcomed as sources of more choice and funding, their widespread adoption as the main method of education is not advisable.  A higher education system that is not progressive and fails to act as a conduit for social mobility will entrench malign and inefficient inequalities in wider society.  Access to higher education must remain a public good for progressive reasons.  Whilst the ideas, funds and choice that private colleges bring will help reverse the decline in university standards, eventually the only true remedy for our universities will be an increase in government spending.

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