Lessons To Be Learnt

It was one of the tightest votes since Labour took office in 1997. Indeed it was – even in the heyday of a landslide parliamentary majority – one it almost lost. Although there was fierce internal negotiation many Labour MPs still rebelled, with yet more simply abstaining from voting at all. Yet despite this the Higher Education Act became law in 2004 with the government winning the crucial division by 316 votes to 311. The most controversial and important changes introduced by this legislation related to changes in the funding of higher education studies. Five years on and as we begin to get to grips with a worsening economic outlook in the New Year it is salutary to note that the Higher Education Act is to be reviewed in 2009. Once again the issue of Higher Education funding will be passionately debated and the success or otherwise of the government’s legislation from five years back will be quite rightly scrutinised. It is imperative that this review is as wide as possible and given the level of attention it deserves.

The most high profile change introduced by the 2004 Act saw the replacement of fixed rate tuition fees by variable fees capped initially at an index-linked £3000 level – three times the pre-2004 level. Additionally the requirement for students to pay fees up front would no longer be necessary; a deferred payment system was also introduced. With the hindsight that has come with the credit crunch, it is arguable that the “buy now pay later mentality” will be regarded as contrary to the sprit of the new austere times, if sadly not terribly different from the government’s present financial policies. Yet the greatest boast from the notably few supporters of the legislation at the time was that, with the implementation of grants, bursaries and a range of loans, a more open and equal system would prevail. Whilst the cost of studying for higher education would rise for most applicants, some of this money would be used to subsidise the cost of study for those less well off. Those who applied for this support would be informed of their eligibility by a complicated government calculation based on immediate family income.

It cannot be denied that Labour succeeded in 2004 in creating a wide-ranging and transformative piece of legislation. Unfortunately these changes never carried a high level of support. Nor has the legislation in its operation attracted much support since its introduction. After careful inspection it is, in practice as well as theory, riddled with a multitude of flaws. Clearly now is the time that some of these problems are highlighted.

Let us first take the introduction of increased tuition fees. The HE Act immediately trebled the annual fees that a student could be charged. In reality this meant that new students from 2006 were likely to pay more in tuition fees per year then their predecessors paid for their whole degree course (the £3000 limit was almost universally regarded as a norm by higher educational providers). With the majority of undergraduates enrolling straight from school this change has led to thousands of our young adults immediately arranging long term loans for what in the past would have been regarded as huge amounts of money. Essentially the Higher Education Act has guaranteed that our new graduates will be in debt. Once maintenance (i.e. living expenses) are added to the tuition fees it is quite commonplace for students leaving university after a three year course to be £20,000 or more in debt. With the current recession already fundamentally transforming our institutions and our society at large it comes as little surprise that the government seek to ameliorate the effects of the burdensome debt they have placed have now placed a burden of debt on our younger emerging generation.

Not only will the younger generation inherit the debt of the current government’s phenomenal budget deficit but hundreds of thousands of people who attend university will now accumulate and carry a re-payment burden into later life from their expensive university days. For the government’s legislation to create this unprecedented black hole of debt for students and believe it to be healthy is incredibly worrying.

A second problem is that whilst our students accumulate this debt they do so at a greater risk than ever before. There is, particularly in these worrying times, no guarantee of employment or any financial boost to earnings after graduation. Being a graduate in 2009 places one in a highly saturated and overly competitive market place. With payment due for those higher education debts as soon as the graduate earns as little as £15,000 per year, the pressure is on. Yet, the high numbers of graduates increasingly receive a lukewarm reception from many businessman and organisations. In recent years I have frequently read newspaper articles about the current standard of graduates entering the work place. In an official Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) survey of over 200 businesses, almost 60% of employers and businesses believed that graduates lacked basic skills of literacy and numeracy – this after sixteen years of full-time educational study! This is worrying particularly as many organisations are looking increasingly likely to cut costs this year and in so doing may scrap or reduce their graduate recruitment schemes and training placements.

Understandably the government is on the case – in the first few days of 2009 it appeared to recognise some of the deep problems with their Higher Education policy with the announcement that some of these high number of unemployed graduates will be offered short term, modestly paid internships. This move is unlikely to assuage graduates’ high expectations nor scratch the surfaces of likely graduate training casualties in unemployment figures. Such a scheme is yet another short term, ineffective solution to some deep problems. Indeed to succeed it may reduce further the number of permanent graduate posts – an internship may become the standard graduate-level entry point. A longer term view is required.

Despite the debt and the risks associated with it many are still choosing to attend university in particular and one can certainly appreciate why. I remember fondly my university days and it is a positive thing that many are attached to higher education because of a mix of the academic desire to study post A-Level along with the social appeals of student life. However, I do feel that many young people need to reassess their expectations. Going to university for the ‘experience’ should be an important consideration but never the primary objective of post-school study. If university is merely a social ‘finishing school’ then racking up a £27,000 debt (the figure that the NUS believe the average student now faces) is an incredibly expensive experience. The amount of debt that builds, the narrow specialism of many courses and the risk of entering the jobs market without a discernable advantage on exit from higher education should result in a greater focus on the quality of advice and direction given to the high number of young people who apply to higher education. University should be a valid aspiration for all people but not a comfortable, thoughtless continuation from school. Greater responsibility in decision making must be encouraged.

Whilst considering the motives behind one’s decision to go to university it is interesting to note that the number of people attending university remains at a historically high level. Does this justify the implications of the Higher Education Act? I believe not. Instead I fear that a recent narrative has emerged which encourages the belief that going to university is virtually a necessity. For sure, any young person with the aptitude and qualifications should have the opportunity to go into higher education, but it should not be forced on young people through a fear that studying for a degree is somehow a rite of passage. This should not be the stuff of government’s targets. University is not the only means of educational attainment, nor – especially in ones late teens- is it right for everyone. Accepting this fact does not create the unfair two-tier system that Labour fears. Rather with the right mentality it actually encourages a greater diversity of acceptable skills and a wider range of jobs and careers.

So in 2009 we see new graduates facing an unprecedented financial crisis with both short and long term implications. Despite this, going to university carries a higher risk than ever before. I believe an increasing number of people, in part through a lack of advice and fear, feel a pressure to higher education often studying a degree that does not inspire or interest them.

Greater respect is needed across the board for career entry positions, for young entrepreneurs, for vocational work/study qualifications, internal work place achievement and, of course, for a pathway that embraces university as well. However, we must challenge the present fixation we have about full time study by young people (including the notion that there should be full-time education to the age of eighteen). When making a decision on what to do with their lives our young people need to be given advice and information that is realistic. The government calculates support to individual students upon idealistic calculations on family income. Yet a greater inequality frequently results. For example, two students at the same university, studying the same course, undertaking the same level of risk of eventual employment may currently be paying tens of thousands of pounds difference because of this bureaucratic government procedure. The 2004 Act did not produce a fairer system but a confused, complicated and in many cases extremely unfair funding structure. A more equitable system is necessary.

Ultimately the review of Higher Education desperately needs to address the short term focus of the government. Presentably the focus is short term. There is an unhealthy governmental obsession on the numbers of people applying and attending universities. Getting bums on seats is all too often the objective of too many universities. There is little or no thought to the exit paths out of higher education, no appreciation of the costs and negatives or of the pressures and difficulties that these numbers will face once accepted by a higher educational institution. A more sensible, longer term view that focuses on exit paths out of Higher of Further Education and which appreciates the renewing of our attitudes and perceptions towards those who choose not to go to university is desperately required. A short term work placement on a minimal wage does not answer the problems – instead it adds to the growing uncertainly around the long term career of graduates. Our students need to have as many doors open to them as possible, but they also need to take a greater responsibility for choosing their personal path. Once that decision has been made they need to be provided with positive support not burdened with a substantial debt.

The Higher Education Act does not simply need a review; it needs a radical reform which promotes a fairer, longer term and more responsible set of higher education policies. Only in this way can we begin to offer our young people lasting hope as opposed to a future overburdened by financial risk.