The recently published Browne Review’s central recommendation, and the one that has garnered the most column inches, has been to lift the cap on the yearly delight that is our tuition fees. As a result, the Review’s strategy for higher education funding has largely been assessed on the basis of whether it will be financially fair for students of unequal economic backgrounds.
The main problem with evaluating Browne’s recommendations is that there are such widely differing visions for the future of higher education, and its ultimate purpose in society. Commentators have lambasted the review for its potential to restrict higher education, close universities and limit the places available for humanities subjects. They do not seem to consider that many people, including the government, have an interest in precisely these things happening, the faster the better.
Exposing higher education to market forces, through the implementation of Browne’s recommendations, is to say the least undesirable for prospective students. It will force universities that cannot attract students to close, make it harder for the lower middle classes to send their children to university, and ultimately change the ethos of higher education. It is unsurprising and certainly no coincidence that all of these results are in line with the government’s “vision” for higher education.
Browne’s proposals are the government’s solution to an engorged higher education landscape, over-abundant with unsustainable universities which were initially encouraged by New Labour as a popular vote spinner. The government now needs these universities to close, but doesn’t want to be responsible for doing it directly. The solution? Expose higher education to the tempestuous reality of the market forces, which will ensure that the universities that can’t survive won’t survive.
So in the grander scheme of things, where does this leave us? Protocol 1, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights clearly states that no one should be denied the right to an education, but like many other seemingly egalitarian doctrines, there are exceptions to the rule. For the article neither guarantees what degree of education one is entitled to receive nor the quality of that education. In short, as ideological and just such doctrines appear, non-compulsory education in the UK is not a God-given right for all, and is ultimately dependent on the financial situation of the government.
With the threat of fewer university places, more emphasis on a narrow band of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and a lifetime of debt, potential students can hardly be encouraged to pursue their educational aspirations. It seems that the government has no serious belief in educational opportunities for all, in spite of targets to get 50% of young people in higher education. The ring-fencing of STEM subjects coupled with a free-market approach to universities will undoubtedly lead students to believe that the government views education in purely economic terms.
Under such circumstances education no longer becomes a right, but something that is paid for dearly. It is the rich who, under Browne’s policies, will be able afford to freely choose their institution on the basis of its quality rather than price, pay off their debts quickly simultaneously avoiding interest, and enjoy the monthly Fortnum and Mason hamper in the happy knowledge that they belong to that elusive social group: the elite.
Those whose parents’ combined wage is slightly too high to fall into the band of students entitled to support must consider their options more carefully. For example, if a student requires £10,000 a year to cover fees and maintenance costs (this is, quite frankly, a conservative estimate) and they do not earn more than £27,000 pa, it will take 29 years to pay back a total of what, with interest, will amount to £45,000. Many potential students, particularly those whose subject of interest does not necessarily lead to a well paid profession may well decide that university debts are not worth their while. The result could resemble the situation in the United States of a two-tiered system of social segregation.
The Browne review more than anything else has demonstrated just how much the debate over higher education has changed. There is an increasingly disgruntled sense that students who achieve good results in exams and are academically minded should fall into place. While media outlets merely comment that those who are university educated benefit eventually through a higher wage than those who did not attend, such publications rarely state anything more explicit. Hidden in the comments sections on the Guardian, Times and BBC websites are vitriolic diatribes against “lazy, entitled” students.
One such prevalent argument runs as follows: it is students who benefit from higher education so they are the ones who ought to pay for it, not the taxpayer. The fact that many students themselves are reluctantly buying into this argument demonstrates how pervasive the free-market ethos has become. Where students have traditionally been typified as the most liberal, socially-aware demographical group, they now impotently accept the capitalist status quo. The public, and perhaps the government, must be reminded that society benefits from a sound investment in higher education through the excellence of the doctors, engineers, lawyers and researchers that it trains, not to mention the higher taxes that their wages generate.
The Browne Report has found a “solution” to a perceived educational problem and a real financial one. Unfortunately this solution is a drastic one that is sustainable only because the burden of sustaining it has been passed on to the student. In the process of “solving” the funding gap, the damage done to a recent but profoundly valuable British ideology is being overlooked, the ideology that the education system is founded on and practises in the belief that learning is valuable and should be equally available to those from every social class.
Alas, the inevitable is coming regardless of our optimistic protestations that higher education should be taken as seriously as the government’s budget. From 2012 we’ll be microwaving grass from Palace Green to supplement our diets. And if you’re planning on ever procreating, it’s probably a good idea to start saving up. Invest in their future, because this government won’t.