With university fees set to rise to unprecedented amounts, opponents of the fees rise predict unfavourable consequences. However, universities are oversubscribed and many university courses are unnecessary. Could the fees hike see the return of a more concentrated, academic higher education system with dedicated students? Claire Porthouse enquires.
Reports have emerged in the media stating that university students now face debts of up to £60,000 after the tuition fee hikes. It is hardly news that the debts would rise, nor, really, should it be news that the rise is a steep one considering that one year at some universities has just risen from £3,000 to £9,000. But £60,000 of debt seems a tad unmanageable.
There will inevitably be talks, again, of graduate taxes, scholarships for the poor, artificially lowered interest rates on these debts, and so on. Whether any of this is a good idea is not what I want to discuss here: what I want to discuss is whether these legions of students should be going to university at all.
My parents both went to university in the 1960s. Back then, it was free – because so few people were going. There were the usual difficulties of paying rent, food bills, the gas and the bar tab when you didn’t have a job, but the actual course was free. Back then, the universities could afford to be free (or at least incredibly cheap) because nobody went.
My father was the first in the family to go to university, and is a clever man. His younger sister did not go to university: she left school, got her first job, and worked her way through several jobs and short-term careers. She is now a district nurse for the NHS, and sits on several health panels in the Tyne and Wear area. She did eventually go to university, paying her way through savings from her full-time nursing job, and earned a degree – but by the time she did, she already had a well-paid, full-time job in nursing and care.
Fast-forward forty years from my father attending university and my aunt getting her first job. Her eldest son went to university for one year before dropping out and returning full-time to the job he’d carried through the last two years of school. He is now the area manager in the North East for a successful company, and earns enough to support his wife, his young son (and soon, a second child) and is paying off a mortgage while buying a new car every six months or so. (I know nothing about cars, but something that big, shiny and irrelevant is probably costly.)
It was not, once, necessary to go to university at all to get well-paid jobs and forge successful careers. It should not be possible now. Employers are increasingly looking for university degrees for jobs that do not require them. Your average heart surgeon should have gone to university. Your average plumber does not need to.
Students are not really to blame for this problem. There is a distinct push in schools to get more and more students into university, and with the careers advisor and the staff telling them at every turn that university is the best option, then it is hardly a surprise that more and more students are applying. There is even some truth in it: more and more jobs require a university degree when its necessity isn’t wholly obvious. Job adverts for receptionists occasionally cite the need for a 2:2 degree or higher for the position.
The result? Thousands of students going on to university, because jobs that can be taught through training to school leavers are suddenly requesting a degree, and so degrees in somewhat odd or useless subjects begin opening up to cater to the extra students. It is very much a cyclical issue: more graduates means more jobs requiring graduates, which means more graduates. Naturally, universities seek to gather more students by providing more courses – which means inventing new ones. I would not be wholly surprised if degrees for hairdressing were to begin making appearances in university prospectus pages.
So what about university for learning’s sake? This is the argument largely forgotten: not everyone goes to university for the job that they can get at the end of it. Some students go simply because they want to be able to learn and experience everything that university has to offer. I sympathise slightly with this view because, in the end, if I had come to university to get a job with a six-digit wage slip every year, I would not be doing the degree that I am. Not having the mathematical skills to become a doctor, I would be training to become a lawyer.
But I do not sympathise entirely – because if you wish to get a degree simply because you wish to learn, should it not be treated the same way as wishing to do anything? If I wish to go to on a trip to Thailand because I want to experience Bangkok in December, the approach would be to earn some money, save up my money until I could afford my trip, and then go. Why is university for university’s sake not treated the same way? And if you decide to go regardless of the fact that you do not have the savings for it, then you should accept your debt as the payment for going in the first place.
This is what new students have to do: really look at what they’ll be getting out of their time at university, and ask if the debt tag is worth it. If your desperate desire is to be a neurosurgeon, then the debt tag will probably be worth it (particularly in light of what you’ll be paid throughout that career). If you want read philosophy for three years, then you might want to wait until the debt isn’t going to be with you for the rest of your life. And if you want to go and get drunk and attend the six thousand clubs and societies that universities have, then you might want to get a job instead, attend your local pub, and check the phone book for events in your city. It’s cheaper.