It is beginning to appear inevitable. A dark cloud is gathering on the horizon. Tuition fees are going up. A BBC survey conducted in march found that two-thirds of university Vice Chancellors across England and Wales are in favour of increases, with some suggesting that the upper limit be increased as high as £20,000 per year. The Daily Telegraph is now reporting that, pending a review of limits on tuition fees, Oxford is considering charging as much as £11,000 per year. John Hood has denied the reports, but it seems fairly clear which way the wind is blowing. Students in general are, obviously, unhappy about it – but is our discontent really anything more than self-interest? No doubt, there are many who decry increases in fees, indeed, the existence of fees at all, as an inegalitarian affront to an individual’s ‘right’ to education. This view is ill-founded.
Firstly, it is empirically ignorant. Going to University has never been more expensive than it is now, yet attendance numbers have never been higher. The fact of the matter is that money is not the only obstacle to gaining a University level education – a significant factor that seems to be widely ignored is the number of places. If we don’t charge, we will have to reduce places, and exclude people, presumably based on intelligence, as we have done historically. Whether you are born ill funded, or born dim witted, it’s still unfair. If we charge, at least the government can intervene to ensure that everyone is able to pay.
Students also have to accept that claims of a ‘right’ to higher education are largely fabrications. Many who object to fees are ignoring the ugly fact that their education is being financed by individuals who did not have the same opportunities they enjoy today. There is a clear justification for the partial subsidisation of education – the overall benefit of the nation. A builder who has never benefitted directly from a University education still has an obvious interest in contributing to the education of doctors, scientists, even politicians and, dare we say it, journalists. However, it seems somewhat of a stretch to demand that he or she fund our ‘right’ to the host of Media Studies-esque degrees that have proliferated in British universities. In fact, many of the degrees offered at Oxford are somewhat questionable in this respect. How much does our builder stand to gain from putting the average undergraduate through a degree in Classics? Anthropology? Even English? The obvious response is that these are subjects that are worth studying. Which they are. However, one struggles to see why anyone has a God given right to study them, let alone to demand that people who never had the same opportunities pay for it. If these things are so worthwhile, we should be prepared to pay for them. There is clearly a balance to be reached – one that reflects the benefit to all that higher education provides, but that also recognises that students, as individuals, stand to benefit personally from their education and should be willing to contribute within reason.
Evidently, a situation in which these experiences are only open to the rich is not acceptable, but we need to admit to ourselves that an increase in tuition fees is not necessarily a death knell for equality of opportunity. There are many ways of redressing inequalities, ranging from grants to the cancellation of students’ debts should they opt for a low income career. Many of these options are currently being considered by those advocating increases in tuition fees. Regardless of whether he intends to raise fees or not, Vice Chancellor Hood has himself reiterated his commitment to a “needs-blind” admission system. That is the first step – the next is ensuring that noone who really wants to is discouraged from applying for financial reasons. These are the battles we should be fighting: We should be pressing politicians and university officials to put appropriate measures in place to ensure that no one is excluded. If we stick our heads in the sand and object to increases carte blanche on the basis of some mythical ‘right’, we risk leaving the disadvantaged far more vulnerable when higher fees eventually arrive.