Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Ask a silly question

The announcement that the cap on university tuition fees is set to rise to £9,000 a year is not exactly unexpected, but that doesn't make it any more acceptable.

There'll be a lot of synthetic rage from Labour, of course. That's Labour, who introduced the current system of tuition fees; who introduced top-up fees when they said they had legislated to prevent them; and who commissioned the Browne report which is the basis of today's announcement. I suspect they're rather hoping we'll forget that.

But just because your opponents are posturing like Vogue models doesn't automatically mean you have right on your side.

You can dress it up how you like. You can say it's not fees because it's paid back afterwards. You can say it's a graduate 'contribution' not a graduate 'tax', as if that somehow makes things better. You can argue that some students from poor backgrounds will get help.

But at the end of the day, many Liberal Democrat MPs signed a promise that they would not vote to raise fees in this parliament. And if they did that, they need to stick to it.

Of course, the problem with the Browne report into higher education funding is that if you ask the wrong question you get the wrong answer. Where we should have started was with a searching examination of what our current university system is there for - and only when we were clear about that should we have moved on to how to pay for it.

I've always been of the opinion that Tony Blair's ambition of 50 per cent of young people going to university was frankly bonkers. It's the sort of thing that's made it possible to get a degree in Casino Operations Management from the University of Blackpool (yes, really), or a BA in Applied Golf Management Studies from the University of Birmingham. I suppose at least with the first option there's a chance you might recoup some of your student debt at the blackjack tables.

As more and more young people are encouraged onto more and more expensive courses, the intellectual currency is inflated and the value of the degree (even assuming it's a sensible subject) goes down and down. Already burdened with the prospect of major debts on graduation, the next generation are going to find it difficult if not impossible to own their own home, or afford to start a family while they are still young.

Taking three years from 18 to 21 to complete a degree while living away from home is an expensive option, whoever provides it. Perhaps we should be looking at more flexible solutions, including OU style distance learning (I did my MBA that way ten years ago), or periods of study interrupted by periods of employment to save up for the next module.

Colleges of further education (declares interest - my husband is Deputy Principal of an FE College) have their part to play, working in partnerships or franchise arrangements with universities to deliver higher education modules locally. Perhaps some subjects really aren't suitable for university courses, and could be taught in other ways (surely we managed to turn out croupiers and groundsmen before they became degree-level subjects?).

And instead of shovelling more and more 18 year olds onto higher education courses of dubious merit or even ultimate financial worth, what about more investment in good solid locally delivered vocational education and training relevant to the needs of the local economy?

But if burdening the next generation with mortgage-style debts is the answer, Browne must have been asked a very silly question indeed.

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