Thursday, 14 October 2010

Tuition Fees

Tuition Fees

Our coalition government has welcomed the Browne report's recommentations on funding universities in England. The suggestion is that universities will lose a chunk of central funding but a can charge students as high a fee as they need to make good the loss (figures of £6000 - £7000 per annum have been mentioned); that students borrow the £21,000 - 36,000 odd needed to get them through their 3 year degree (accommodation plus tuition); that this debt immediately attracts commercial rates of interest (2.2% above inflation); payback commences when the graduates earns more than £21,000 p.a. and continues as the rate of 9% of income for the next 30 years, if necessary. [See the helpful briefing by the Institute for Fiscal Studies:]

There seems to be a lot of nonsense written about this matter and I propose to add my twopennyworth here.

First, "If it is not broken, don't fix it!". Higher education was funded in my day out of taxes (on a means-tested basis) on the grounds that it was of benefit, not merely to the recipient, but to the nation. That system worked for many years, but maybe it does not now, for many reason(s). There has been a grotesque expansion of the university sector. Politicians are squeamish about putting  2% on income tax to pay for it. The "fairness" argument has suggested that the beneficiaries are the graduates themselve, not the rest of society. (I question that, a point to which I may recur.)

It has been pointed out by the media that graduates earn (on average) some £100,000 more than non-graduates in a lifetime, as though this might justify spending £36,000 at the beginning of your adult life — as an investment. But might this not be another instance of the media's favourite blunder? Yacht-owners are (on average) rich; but I advise against buying a yacht in the hope of becoming rich. I am a great advocte of education, as a means of improving society, but not as a means of becoming rich. I (who have taught at universities for > 30 years) think at least 50% of degrees contribute little or nothing to the wealth of the graduate, or to GNP. Even if your school-leaver decided to spend £36,000 as an investment, it seems a very poor one (on average). The FTSE 100 index began on 3 January 1984 at 1,000 and now stands at 5,700; £36,000 invested 26 years ago would be worth £205,200 now (on average).

I think fees of £7000 per annum and debts of £36,00 will certainly put students off university. And I think it should. (Taking 9% out of your income for 30 years sounds appalling to me and considerably worse than a 2% rise in income tax.) Drastic shrinkage of the University sector may occur, but may be the best outcome of the present proposals, though one vigorously denied by the proposers.

I hate the idea, however true, that a medical degree is a means to grow rich. It has already had a distasterous effect on the profession for it has bred a generation of doctors with a very mercenary outlook (mixed in with, and corrupting, or depressing, the genuine philanthropists). I do not know who to blame for this trend, though I have some preliminary culprits in mind; everyone who has ever said "Get real!" for a start; for should we not rather say "Get ideal!". When I find the culprits I have a great load of  'scorn' to pile on them.

The notion that a degree is valuable to society is as in need of qualification as the other (that it is a means of making money). It should be a very simple matter for a committee to decide which degrees are valuable and which not. Indeed, it could be left to market forces, or so it will be argued, though the great debate between the "free-marketeers" and the "planners" did not end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, for we are now sending spies to Scandinavia to find out why their banks are solvent, their pensions funded in perpetuity, and their citizens living contentedly with >50% income tax. What we principally need in this country are more waiters, bus-drivers, and plumbers. We seem to be overstocked (even to 30-fold) with psychologists, media students, and those hoping to improve water quality by looking at river wildlife. (Gambling bankers contribute nothing, except tax.)

None of which reflection gets us very far forward, so here is a positive thought. Pehaps we should encourage businesses, and government departments who need graduates, to recruit school-leavers and sponsor their university studies, as was done on a small scale in the sixties and seventies of last century; I mean pay the tuition fees. I do not think I would take a university course under Browne proposals unless I were sponsored in this way, and I would not urge any child or grandchild of mine to do so either.

Occidentis, MORPETH, UK.

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