Student politics
Student protest

The real problem with tuition fees

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Two months ago, over 10,000 students and lecturers took to the streets of London in what has now become a familiar sight, protesting against rising tuition fees. They claimed that tuition fees, which if the government’s higher education bill is passed will be allowed to rise to £9,250, along with sluggish pay growth for lecturers, is yet more evidence that the government is not acting in the interest of young people.

Quite right as well. Those who come from poor families and get a well-paying job in the future may pay in excess of £50,000 to the state. All of which many of our parents would have received for free.

However, while I agree that tuition fees are excessively high, this is where I start to diverge from the claims of the protestors. The root cause of the mess of our higher education system is not an evil Tory government intent on rubbishing young people (indeed, it was Labour who introduced tuition fees, which many seem to forget), but something more fundamental.

Those who come from poor families and get a well-paying job in the future may pay in excess of £50,000 to the state

Too many people go to university. What? You must be mad? When all of the discourse is about getting more and more people into university, how can this be the case?

Well let’s look at the facts. Tony Blair’s much famed ‘education, education, education’ mantra set a target of 50% of young people going to university at the turn of the century. It seems he’s achieved what he wanted. Data shows that university entrance rates amongst young people is almost touching the 50% mark up from a shocking 3.4% in 1950.

Too many people go to university

Quite a rise. Now, while clearly 3.4% of young people going to university is clearly too low, I find it shocking that no one considers 50% too high (cue the cries of elitism). What people fail to understand is that by definition a university education is supposed to be elitist.

I don’t mean this in the traditional sense of only the wealthy classes going to university, but in the sense that university should be a reserve for a small segment of people – our most academically minded young people.

What people fail to understand is that by definition a university education is supposed to be elitist

What’s the value in having a degree if any Tom, Dick or Harry can go to a mediocre university and get a third in American Studies?

Many nations do fine with a lower percentage of young people going to university. In Germany, the rate is approximately 31%, which allows German universities to charge little or no tuition fees. Most would agree that the German economy isn’t exactly suffering from an acute skills shortage right now, quite the opposite in fact!

What’s the value in having a degree if any Tom, Dick or Harry can go to a mediocre university and get a third in American Studies?

What makes this case all the more compelling is that tuition fees are entirely preventable. When the percentage of young people going to university was small, government could afford for there to be no tuition fees. Now that almost 50% of young people enrol in university, that burden has become a lot more challenging.

Those who work hard, achieve good grades and therefore get a well-paying job will most likely pay back all of their loan. We should be rewarding these sorts of students and not taxing them so excessively.

Now that almost 50% of young people enrol in university, that burden has become a lot more challenging.

It is highly unfair for students doing challenging degrees with a good work ethic having to subsidise three years of partying for lazy students who do questionable degrees. We all know of someone who treats university as a joke and quickly drop out within a year or two. We are all paying for their irresponsibility.

When the time comes back to pay their loan and they can’t, we have to bail out the system through the public coffers as usual. It would have been a lot better for the student, who has now wasted a number of years of their life, and the state, which has spent considerable sums, if they had never come in the first place.

We are all paying for their irresponsibility.

So while I agree that tuition fees are too high, the root cause is not an austerity government. It is our oversubscribed universities, catering to people who simply should never have gone to university and will most likely never pay back their loan, leaving us to pick up the tab! It would be better if we expanded apprenticeships and training opportunities, leading university participation rates to fall. Perhaps we would not have to pay back £9000 a year as well!

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