Enough is Enough

Article published September 2010, in FLEX, the Falmouth and Exeter student newspaper. I’m one of the features editors. It’s fun.

The upcoming government spending review is expected to announce a funding cut for higher education of at least 20%. Universities are already hitting the panic button, as this year’s clearing debacle has illustrated.

It’s a hard truth that financial austerity is required across the board in the current economic climate. However, it strikes me that such a ruthless slash in funding will only wreak havoc upon an already frail system. The ones to really suffer as a result will be you and I.

We already suffer. Most of us are paying upwards of £3000 a year for courses where we’re lucky to see more than 8 hours a week of actual tuition. Next time you’re in a dull lecture, try and work out how much it’s costing you per hour; you’ll pay much more attention when you realise you’ve paid fifty quid for it.

Currently there are two main schools of thought as to how to fill the inevitable funding gap. The coalition are touting, in various guises, a graduate tax which will affect everybody with the temerity to want a degree, whilst universities are in favour of substantially raising the tuition fee on some or all courses.

The graduate tax is fundamentally flawed. Whilst it does away with tuition fees (in theory), it would actually end up costing us more than current tuition fees if we were even moderately successful in later life. It makes a degree even more of a gamble than it already is; what is the point of having one if it means you immediately pay more tax than your colleague who never went to uni?

If graduates were guaranteed a higher level of income than equivalent non-grads, it would be workable, but it would never be accepted so pound for pound those who wanted the best education lose out. It’s not so much a tax on graduates as a tax on ambition.

Increasing tuition fees is also a dangerous move. Students, especially those from lower income families, are already becoming averse to university because of the cost. Higher tuition fees, coupled with the Institute of Financial Studies’ assertion that the current budget will, predictably, hit the poorest hardest, will surely drive talented students away from education.

This seems like a suicidal masterstroke from Osborne and co. We are a nation whose biggest export is knowledge. Expertise, skills and academia are what we do best these days; it’s not like we have a manufacturing industry to fall back on, and I’ve not seen that much oil gushing from the ground recently.

Universities have to be subsidised, and heavily so. This is inevitable, but the long term contribution to the economy of highly educated graduates must far outweigh the initial cost to the taxpayer.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is the lack of support we get from our own institutions. Vice chancellors recently held a conference, the main point of which was to discuss the looming financial meltdown. They bemoaned the situation, and were desperately looking for ways to balance the books. The main solution was, of course, to raise tuition fees. Significantly.

The prestigious Russell Group of universities put forward a plan to effectively open up higher education to market forces; charge what they like as long as people pay it, making students ‘customers’ and education ‘a product’. Going down this road, the next step on would be to cold call prospective students, offer buy one get one free courses, give 10% off when you buy online. It would be laughable were it not so scary.

It’s difficult, however, to stomach a big rise in the cost of courses when it transpires that vice chancellors take home, on average, around £220,000 a year. In fact, Falmouth and Exeter are well above average in this respect. Exeter’s Steve Smith boasted a basic pay packet of £295,000 in the 08-09 year. In the same year, Falmouth equivalent Alan Livingston took home a basic package of £204,000 as well as a one-off retirement payoff of £188,000.

Vice chancellors do vital work. Institutions would struggle to run without them and their job must be unbelievably demanding, but it smacks just slightly of hypocrisy when our heads decry a lack of cash whilst banking eyewatering sums themselves.

There are no easy solutions to this issue. What certainly needs to happen is for the government to accept that higher education will always cost a lot, and continue to support and subsidise the system. Universities need to stop the knee-jerk reaction of passing on extra costs to students. They must take a good look at their own infrastructure and do some serious cost-cutting.

Most importantly, as students we must stand up and take action. I was always told that education is a right, not a privilege. Unless we resist these proposals en masse, unless we reject moves to turn education into a grand moneymaking scheme, into the exclusive domain of the wealthy, that adage may very quickly be proved false.