University isn’t for everyone and I’m a firm believer in the value of higher level vocational education – including apprenticeships and work-based training - as an alternative means by which youngsters can realise their potential, mature into adulthood and gain skills for future employment. But university should be a viable option for all those able and willing to pursue the academic route.
At the last count, less than 9% of the Liverpool Walton population were graduates. The figure falls shockingly short of the national average (around 35% in 2008) and pales into worrying and embarrassing insignificance, when compared to the graduate rates of many Western European countries. A higher proportion of young people in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic are now educated to degree level than their peers in the UK.
Michael Gove, the inaccuracy-prone Education Secretary, blames poor university participation rates on poor and failing schools. That’s an utterly fallacious argument, which reveals the man’s flawed grasp of his brief. Here in the constituency, the secondary schools are much improved and thriving and there is no reason why large numbers should not be successfully applying to university and staying the course.
But they’re not and it’s only logical to conclude that the current (and I stress, the current) cost of tuition fees, with the attendant long-term debt, plays a significant role in putting youngsters off. This is borne out by the fact that of those teens who do opt for higher education, increasing numbers are choosing to stay in the parental home and attend local higher education institutions rather than move away to study, so as at least to eliminate the costs of ‘living out’.
This is unfortunate. Don’t get me wrong – we have excellent universities in and around Liverpool which offer sound standards of education. But going off to university was formerly a rite of passage – the means by which young adults would fly the nest, go off to explore other places and become confident and ‘rounded’. It was also largely the preserve of the middle classes. The previous Labour Government recognised this and did much nationally to widen access to and participation in higher education. But it was not complacent and knew it had a fair way to go if it was to achieve its ambitious targets.
This week, the Coalition Government managed in one callous, short-sighted blow to undo much of the progress made under Labour, when it announced it will be raising university tuition fees in England to between £6,000 and £9,000 per year, effectively doubling or even tripling the current costs. Ignore the £6,000 figure; universities have already indicated that £9,000 will become the norm. Most would-be students must now expect to acquire £27,000 debt in loans over a three year course – and that’s before housing, clothing and feeding themselves. Only the wilfully obtuse could argue this will not deter those from poorer backgrounds from considering higher education.
Universities Minister David Willetts went on to offer all sorts of feeble assurances and qualifications. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds will not suffer – they’ll be exempt, they’ll be offered assistance, they’ll be actively recruited by quality universities. He resorted to sophistry - the whopping ‘monies owed’ accumulated by graduates will not in fact be ‘credit card style debts’ but ‘graduate contributions’. He seemed to think that raising the repayment earnings threshold to £21,000 would somehow make it all better.
If their patronising rhetoric is to be believed, Gove, Willetts and their smug cronies in this arrogant Coalition are utterly out of touch with reality. Money owed is debt and £27,000 is £27,000, however you choose to label it. Most people – never mind twenty-somethings starting out - would baulk at the prospect of being saddled long-term with such a huge debt. In the current climate, with graduate unemployment reaching crisis levels, home ownership but a fantasy to many aspiring first time buyers and £21,000 currently less than the average wage, it’s wholly unacceptable of the Government to dress it up as anything other than the financial millstone it is.
And the supreme irony is that these exorbitant tuition fees will not result in improved – or even maintained - standards. The point of the exercise is to shift the financial burden from the public purse to students themselves to fill the funding gap created by Government cuts, so cash-strapped universities will henceforth be relying upon tuition fees not to expand, to diversify or to improve teaching and learning, but merely to stay afloat.
Every which way you look at it this hike in university fees is as outrageously regressive as it is utterly unfair. Not only does it enforce personal debt in the name of fiscal responsibility; it flies in the face of the Government’s alleged commitment to kick-starting the economy. If the local and sub-regional economy is to survive the rocky financial road ahead and prosper in the future, Merseyside needs a well-qualified, highly skilled workforce. Yet by pricing swathes of Merseyside youngsters out of higher education, the Government appears to be going out of its way to prevent that happening.
A well-educated populace is traditionally the hallmark of an enlightened and civilised society. Such a society recognises higher education funding as a collective investment in the future. The current Government fails to recognise this; its actions betray its view of access to university as a privilege, not a right. It seeks to reduce everything – education included – to a commodity, to be bought ‘on tick’. In doing so, it offers future generations a veritable Morton’s Fork: either pass up the chance to fulfil your potential or take on decades’ worth of debt in an uncertain future.
The sheer “I’m alright, Jack” nerve of these privileged Tory and Lib Dem ministers – many of whom are millionaires; most of whom benefited from an entirely free university education, with grants thrown in to boot – is breathtaking. And it shows them for the venal hypocrites they really are.