Saturday, 11 December 2010
Free education - free for whom?
Since the student demos have been in the news so much recently, it got me thinking about the whole "free university education" issue.
Education in the UK is only compulsory up to the age of 16. After that, it's entirely optional (though personally I think it should be compulsory up to the age of 18 and if you choose to leave school before then or get expelled, you shouldn't be entitled to any unemployment benefits in the future - but that's a whole different bee in my bonnet!)
Now, once upon a time, only a very small minority of people went on to further education - most didn't even continue on to Sixth Form College or Technical College etc, let alone university. It may well have been seen as something that only better-off kids did - though I'm not quite clear why that would be - the education was totally free then as far as I know so it shouldn't have made any difference how rich or otherwise you were. The only thing I can assume is that if you came from a lower-income family, there was more of an imperative for you to go out and work so you could help support the family. I'm quite certain it had nothing to do with intelligence. Of course, there is always the chance that it was snobbery and that it was simply that universities didn't want poorer people attending. Who knows?
I digress. As the number of people wanting to attend university rose, so did the cost - to both the universities and the taxpayer. I'm not saying that more people wanting to gain a degree is a bad thing, but it does depend on why they're doing it. In my current job, I work with quite a lot of students who are in their first couple of years at uni. I've heard some of them say that they're there not because of some compelling desire to learn, or because they have some particularly high-brow career in mind which absolutely requires a degree, but simply because at the age of 18 they either didn't know what they wanted to do for a living, or simply didn't fancy getting a job. Many of them do also seem to be fitting the stereotype of the heavy-drinking, ever-sleeping, doing-no-work student. Two of them yesterday said that they hadn't actually attended any lectures, tutorials or even been near the university for two and three weeks respectively. I'm really not clear how that's something to be proud of! One of them was on one of the demos last week. So let me get this straight - she wants me, via my taxes, to pay for her to have a free education, but she doesn't actually plan to work at it? So I think one of my objections is pretty clear now.
My second objection is that from the way many people are talking, you would think that the students or their families are being asked to turn up with a suitcase full of used fivers at the beginning of term (totalling between £3500 and the new maximum fee of £9000 for a 3 or 4 year degree) in advance. No! There are still grants, bursaries, scholarships etc etc. Many will still get it paid for and then not have to start paying it back until they're earning £21,000. So if they leave uni and either choose not to work, choose to continue in education or take a job at a lower salary, they're not going to have to pay it back anyway. And if they do make use of the degree and get into a job that's paying them that sort of money, why shouldn't they be expected to give something back?
On a more personal note, if higher/further education is to be free for all, surely it really should be for all. There are several adult education courses I fancy taking, either for personal development or to improve/change my career prospects. I know plenty of other people who would love to go and get a couple of extra A Levels, learn a language, do a vocational course etc - do we get that for free? No, of course we don't. We have to find the money to pay for the course up-front, then pay a fee for any associated exam, pay for transport/parking to the college/university etc. Perhaps the taxpayer would like to cough up for that too. Yeah. Thought not.
Much like for most things, I'm all in favour of means-testing. I realise that's more difficult with education as most people don't have any "means" at the age of 18 - and I don't think that parents should be expected to fund a degree either unless they really want to. So what is currently being suggested pretty much fits in exactly with how I think it should work. Do your degree. Pay for it later if and when you're earning enough. Is that really so unfair?