Universities: 2012 looms

Antony Mason foresees chaos in the UK university system

With the current summer round of AS and A level exams in full swing, the university entry year beginning September/October 2012 now appears clearly on the horizon. And there is every reason to fear that the university system as we know it is on the verge of collapse.

And it is not even clear whether this is thought to be a good thing or a bad thing. That should be a real cause for alarm.

Paved with good intentions

Universities have been generally viewed as a cornerstone of European culture and civilisation for some 500 years: the repository of knowledge, the laboratories of new thinking and ideas, and the wellsprings of research that leads to economic and industrial development. And equal access to all on the basis of merit has long been a vital engine of social mobility.

The last Labour government thought that universities were such a good idea that they wanted 50% of the population to benefit from them.

So they introduced “top-up” tuition fees to help to cover the costs. It was obvious from the start that this was going to be just the first step to ever-rising tuition fees; and so it has come to pass, especially now, as the government seeks ways to reduce public spending and the deficit, and universities need to fill the gap left by the drop in government funding.

Ratcheting it up

Now an alarming number of universities want to charge the maximum £9,000 a year. This means that, with living costs also factored in, students could leave university with debts of around £45,000. Is that any way to start on a career? Is this the right message to be handing out to the younger generation in a nation already crippled by mountains of personal debt?

Government ministers try to ague that this new arrangement is actually better for students, as they don’t have to start paying off this debt until they earn £21,000. Some comfort! So university education is free if you remain low-paid throughout your career. Earn a bit more, and over the decades you can trickle back the money borrowed for a benefit that will seem, with time, ever more remote.

Graduates are said to earn much more than those that don’t go to university: £120,000 over a lifetime was a figure bandied around. Divide that by 40 years, and you see that it does not amount to much. Many, many university graduates do not do high-paid jobs – but jobs that are nonetheless highly valued. Social workers, probation officers, staff working for charities and NGOs, teachers, even university lecturers, will be saddled with debt for much of their careers.

Add to this all the other economic pressures, such as the great difficulty in borrowing to gain entry into the housing market, and it is not surprising that many young people coming up to university age (and their parents) are wondering if it is worth going to university at all.

Consumer demands

Students facing this kind of expenditure are going to want value for money at university. They won’t put up with sloppy lecturing, oversized tutor groups, teaching and marking by graduates – the kind of cost-cutting strategies that universities have got away with to make ends meet in the past. Universities are going to have to satisfy the demands of their paying customers.

And prospective students will think twice about doing courses that do not have any clear path towards the kind of profession that will repay that £45,000 debt. Anyone for archaeology, philosophy, theology, botany, art history, history, English literature?

All these factors going to cause a real shake-up in the universities. How are they going to fund courses for which there is a falling demand – especially as, at the same time, these will now require greater resources and staffing to match the expectation of fee-paying students?

The high-powered older universities – those of the Russell Group, for instance – may be in a better position to ride this out. Newer universities, trying to build a reputation and offering more marginal, mixed-discipline courses, may well struggle, especially if there is a rapid fall-off of applications. In fact, many are already radically cutting the number of courses that they offer, and focussing on their core income-earners. Some will close altogether.

Crash courses

It has been widely suggested that costs could be saved by reducing many courses from three years to two. Certainly, the teaching of many courses could be concertinaed in this way. But this would alter radically the university experience.

Many students need the first year to adapt to a higher level of study and the discipline of academic essay writing – for which the current A level system prepares them very poorly. They then need another year in which to flourish in their subject before facing an intense, short (September to May) last year in which they do their final exams and dissertations.

Where is the slack in that? And where is the space to acquire those less tangible and monetised – but equally valuable – benefits of university life: growing up as an independent individual, and making life-long friends?

Who cares?

Given all these doubts, it may well be that fewer young people go to university in the future. What would be the loss? Or, as some have brutally expressed it: who needs a degree in a half-baked course from a second-rate university – especially at the cost of £45,000?

The counterargument needs to be trumpeted. Universities are infrastructure, they are an investment in young people, in their and the nation’s future.

British universities are – for the most part – outstanding centres of excellence, of such high international standing that they attract tens of thousands of foreign students (who pay the full tuition fee).

There are arguments for and against the very idea of tuition fees, and who should pay for the benefits of university education: should it be the tax-payer, or the individual, or a bit of both? But tripling the tuition fees for UK students at a single stroke is causing great uncertainty, which can only undermine our universities at a critical time.

What course should you apply for? Will it still exist in 2012? Gap year anyone?

And these changes are being imposed by a generation of politicians who enjoyed generous grants when they went to university, and who are now denying them to the next.

There could hardly be an issue that shows with greater clarity how myopic and self-centred the political establishment can be when it comes to the long-term interests of younger generations.