There has long been a debate about the state of further and higher education and how exactly it should be funded. These views range from a ‘free’ system, graduate contributions or a tuition fee basis, just to name but a few. Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum can roughly determine what side of the argument you are on.
Personally, I believe that education should be free as it is a right for all. We don’t just stop learning because we have left school, college or university, it continues throughout our life.
For many, education is a route to a better world and a better quality of life than they would have had access to. So why then have previous and current UK governments introduced policies of tuition fees?
England and Wales
Many people will remember the student demonstrations that took place in late 2010 and the chaos and disruption that took place. As an active member of the the student community at the time I remember campaigning and lobbying prospective members of parliament for them to pledge not to raise tuition fees, essentially one of the nails in the Lib Dem coffin. The increase to £9,000 to Higher Education courses will deter alot of people hoping to attend University, though the coalition government maintain that people will not pay it back until they are earning at least £21,000 the thought of having a debt of £27,000 for tuition alone will stifle what people will do next. This doesn’t even take into account the accommodation costs, travel expenses or the general cost of living that students will have. The average debt for a student in England and Wales will now total roughly £60,000.
Now as someone who studied in Scotland and someone who was involved in the National Union of Students (NUS) during my time at University I would regularly hear from my counterparts from the Rest of the UK (RUK) that education was free in Scotland. To a point they were right, but only on one point: tuition fees. Anyone attending University who has been domiciled in Scotland for 3 years or more are eligible to have their tuition paid for by the Scottish Government via the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. This only means one thing for Scottish students, and that is they will not leave University saddled with debt in tuition fees. Unfortunately it does not mean that Scottish students will leave University debt free and this seems to be a common misconception with Scottish students graduating with between £10,000 and £16,000 in student debt.
To add further salt to injury for RUK students, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell MSP, implemented legislation that allowed Scottish Institutions to charge their own fee for RUK students up to the maximum of £9,000 as it is in the RUK. Previously this was set by the Scottish Government at £1,820 with a slightly higher fee for Medicine. Unfortunately this has meant that 3/19 Scottish Higher Education Institutes will charge a maximum of £36,000.
So lets think about this. At present students will graduate with some form of debt. Some will not pay this back until they are earning at least £21,000, meaning those who never earn that amount will never pay it back presumably. But think about it…why saddle the future generations with an amount roughly the size of a small mortgage. It is not only the individual that benefits from having an education that is debt free but also society.
So far I’ve mainly touched upon Higher Education, but we should not forget the Further Education sector and the benefits that it can bring for people. In my mind the Further Education sector caters to four categories of people:
1. It provides vocational training for people who want a career in a trade, usually working alongside apprenticeships.
2. It enables those who feel that they may not ready to go straight to Higher Education, as a stepping stone whilst still able to gain a qualification equivalent to that of First Year at University.
3. It can be used as a ‘second chance’ for many people. For some people, school doesn’t help them, they aren’t interested or they perceive school as a waste of time and unfortunately we still have people leaving without any form of qualification or even a basic skill set in areas such as Maths and English. For others, some people were just unlucky in their final school years and missed out on that grade that would have gotten them where they wanted to be, there’s no shame in that at all.
4. Further Education can be used to hone your skills for employment. Allowing you to undertake a course that would help you gain a promotion in the workplace, improve your own ability with work or in some cases just allowing you to undertake something new and explore new experiences.
Unfortunately when it comes to Further and Higher Education there is a big problem: Eilitism.
Now in my mind ‘Elitism’ comes from a number of avenues. Society, students and politicians are all in affect to blame for how we perceive the two separate entities that is Further and Higher Education. One may lead to another but they are both completely distinct of each other.
What we tend to find is there are parts of Society that tend to perceive those who go to University as ‘brainy’ or ‘intelligent’ and those that attend College within the Further Education sector as being ‘less able’ or ‘unintelligent’. It doesn’t take into account a persons own choice. I personally believe that if you have managed to get into college or university it should be heralded as a great thing. Its not an easy task. If you haven’t been to college or university ask someone what its like to get in, the competition is fierce. Admissions officers aren’t just looking for grades, they want all these extra curricular activities and they want to see what makes you different from those who may only have the specified grades to get into their desired course.
Wider society does not understand how tough and difficult it can be for some people and this is were the elitism starts. Example:
‘Oh you’re at college…didn’t you apply to University?’
‘Oh…you’re at X University. Why did you decide to go there?’
You can imagine in your head the condescending tone that would go with any of these two statements.
As a former student I know what it was like when someone asked you what University you went to. In some cases you would wait with bated breath for what was to come when you said your answer. Best example of this is where I myself studied, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.
Now for those who may be unaware the City of Glasgow has three Universities, (Glasgow, Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian), two specialist institutions (Glasgow School of Art, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and 3 ‘super’ colleges (City of Glasgow, Glasgow Clyde College, Glasgow Kelvin College), aptly named super colleges as each institution came into creation due to the merger of three colleges into one.
Now this gives Glasgow a tremendously diverse student population, with people from various backgrounds and ideas all integrating and mixing together. But it also means that there is a tremendous amount of elitism amongst the students of each institution. The Universities typically exemplify this with Glasgow being being the oldest, seen as the most elitist/’snobbiest’, Strathclyde as the more modern and friendly and Glasgow Caledonian as a lesser as their entry requirements tended to be lower compared to the other two institutions. However, all of this is a fallacy.
For certain disciplines and subjects each University has an edge over the other, Glasgow offers Medicine and Dentistry, Strathclyde – Teacher Training and Pharmacy and Glasgow Caledonian – Optometry and Podiatry. We need to get away from deriding people at other institutions as though those individuals are lesser as you are seen to go to a better establishment. By all means allow friendly rivalries and competition in sport or academic prizes but deriding someone just because they attend, in your view, a lesser institution does not help break down the barriers that people face when trying to accessing further or higher education. I myself have been guilty of this.
I remember adamantly that I wanted to attend at Glasgow University to do Music and Politics but failed short of one grade even though I had under went their summer school programme. I was devastated by it, at the fact that I would have to undertake my degree at Strathclyde, I felt that it wasn’t the better University due to the perceptions and barriers I myself had established within my mind. I actually relayed this story to the University’s Senate Body as well as the Principal, then I did say how I was glad that it ended up at Strathclyde, one of the best accidents to happen to me as it were.
Where do I start with this one? Until 1998 there were no fees of any kind within the UK. Everyone who had attended at University had done so on bursaries, scholarships etc. For the Labour Government at the time this brought about divisions with Ken Livingstone accusing Ministers of ‘whipping away a ladder of opportunity which they themselves had climbed’. Now this in itself brought about differences across the UK due to devolution with Scotland keeping free tuition but introducing a graduate endowment, £ 2,289, which would be paid back after the student had graduated.
Now education is a massive political issue, it is one of the key issues that the electorate looks at when casting their vote and is always a jewel in the manifesto’s of political parties. The issue though is how do we fund it. Some argue that education is never ‘free’ as the taxpayer is footing the bill. Though this is technically true, the same could then be said about public sector workers and the point of asking them to pay tax when technically they are paid for by the state?
Simple, society as a whole benefits from a skilled and educated workforce.
There are many ways in which Education could be funded as I said at the beginning of this piece. One that was banded about for a while, even from members of NUS, was a graduate contribution. With those earning more paying more into the education system as they were now reaping the benefits. Or there is the case for introducing a means tested aspect for tuition fees by in which those with parental incomes over a certain amount, say £150,ooo for example as this is when people pay the 45% tax rate, contribute to their childrens education. Now I don’t know what the exact answer is, but I believe that the burden shouldn’t be on the student and they should be able to study without looking at the pricetag of a course before applying.
Whatever the funding solution one thing must be kept at all times and that is adequate funding for our colleges. There is absolutely no point in funding Higher Education bodies and ransacking the college budgets. Essentially stopping anyone from having their second chance or their next steps before university. The sad thing however is this is what we are seeing. At least in Scotland anyway.
In trying to ensure that no tuition fees are brought in in Scotland, the Scottish Government has dramatically reformed the further education sector resulting in 50,000 colleges places being cut from 2010/11 to 2011/12 and the loss of 1,000 teaching posts aswell as a loss of around 5million teaching hours. It is not right or just to pit two different education sectors against each other in order to maintain free education. It essentially undermines the principles of free education by alienating a sector of society that sees Further Education as the way forward for them.
Where to next?
There is no doubt about it that there has to be a conversation and shift in how the education sector is funded. There needs to be a serious conversation with regards to education funding, one that values both the Further and Higher Education sectors. We can’t keep raising the tuition fee cap that will inevitably price out the poorest students, nor can we underfund one area of education whilst trying to protect another. It’s not fair, and its not just.
‘Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation’ – John F. Kennedy