Cutting time at university won’t cut inequality

Proposed plans to shrink university courses to two years ignores the true value of higher education, writes Lydia Higman

Source: Wikipedia

The claim that universities are bastions of privilege is virtually axiomatic. Systemic inequality within the education system culminates to reflect a demographical and financial imbalance within universities. The most controversial aspect being the shift in the burden of pay from the state to the student.

As it stands, university tuition fees are at £9,500 per year with a 4.6% interest rate, deterring less-privileged prospective students from applying. This is a perversion of the principles of the right to education. Indeed, it was the miscalculation of the impact of tuition fees that so famously buried the Liberal Democrats in the coalition.

The consensus on the need for change (or reaction to the pressure for change) is broadly shared, hence Theresa May abandoned the planned £250 increase in fees for 2018-19. Similarly, in July this year, Damian Green stated that student debt in its current form is a “huge issue”. Acknowledging the flaws in the university system is a non-partisan apprehension. But Universities minister Jo Johnson’s most recent ‘solution’ to the problem of astronomical student debt, to reduce university courses to two years, is short-sighted and lacks a clear rationale.

His proposal to amend the Higher Education and Research Bill would allow for more ‘flexible learning’ and offer a higher annual fee limit for accelerated courses, subject to Parliamentary approval. For Johnson, an overwhelming majority of courses could be done in two years, especially with the development of the internet which has had a transformative impact on teaching methods.

An efficiency drive of this nature relates to a key assumption about academia: that the humanities don’t offer as much in terms of skill set as other more vocational degrees. For Simon Jenkins, newspaper columnist for The Guardian and past editor of The Times, the humanities are content with the valuation of education as an inherent good. Jenkins neglects to mention that the humanities will arm an individual with the ability to conduct a critical investigation, such as this one.

It is a valid statement that engineering will literally give a student a more tangible skill set. But valuing engineering above philosophy is characteristic of a paradigmatic view towards education that is driven by economic output and productivity. This is precisely the indictment that Stefan Collini makes in Speaking of Universities. For Collini, the systemisation of funding and governance has forced universities to engage more in market behaviour and entrepreneurialism. The imposition of these values from policy-makers has detracted from the value of universities as centres of learning. This detraction takes a very literal form in Johnson’s proposal to cut the three-year course.

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The narrative on universities clearly expands past student loans. In his article, Simon Jenkins refers to a debate held at London’s Institute of Education between two top educational economists, Mark Blaug and John Vaizey. The debate was centred around university being a mode of personal consumption or an institution of national investment. Vaizey argued that universities were indeed a project of national investment (supposedly without offering a plausible rate of return), whilst Blaug argued that university was merely a vehicle for middle-class consumption.

One economist from the event suggested that economic growth in Germany and East Asia preceded mass access to higher education. Similarly, Alison Wolf argued that post-graduate wages are stagnant, productivity is low, and 1/3 of graduates are in non-graduate jobs. But a solution like Johnson’s, which focuses solely on time and financial efficiency, ignores the complexity of the debate surrounding higher education. Furthermore, Johnson misses one key fact about university: it should also be a period of personal development.

Johnson plans to encourage more universities to adopt these ‘accelerated degrees’ by permitting them to charge a 20% premium, raising fees to £11,100 to cover additional costs. Johnson argues that the accelerated degree will create a more efficient system whilst encouraging mature students to apply, whose application to university has shown a marked decline since the rise in tuition fees. So what of the alternatives? Labour’s solution is even simpler: to cut tuition fees all together and pay the £50,000 of debt. This acts as a corrective for the imbalance between private and state burden for higher education, which depending on your political affiliation is a good or bad thing.

In doing so, the fees would be shifted to the richest 40% of graduates away from poorer tax payers. Jenkins suggests an income tax coding system based on the years spent in higher education would be fairer. This attempts to get around the congestion in debt repayment, another serious issue. The Economics consultancy London Economics predicted up to 48.6% of loans will not be repaid. The diversity in solutions further highlights that whilst the numerous problems may be an area of cross-party consensus, building non-partisan support for any solution will be hard. In this case, Johnson’s attempts to push reform through parliament will see a substantial backlash from the Labour party who are determined to scrap tuition fees all together.

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There are 140 institutions in the UK teaching more than 2.5 million students. It is time that universities are treated as more than a channel for rhetoric. Fair access to education is still, regrettably, a privilege. But it is not just the specific policy, but the approach itself that must change to ratify this inequity. Reviewing student loan arrangements or cutting the time students spend studying are solutions indicative of a British attitude problem. The quantification of the value of university should be greater than the rate of return from graduates.

The British political establishment have historically struggled to participate in great collective ideas. This had traction during the Brexit vote as the British had always failed to view the European project as a codification of collective freedoms, as well as a tool for economic convenience. To this affect, policy-makers must place education at a higher level of credence. Valuing fair access to education above economic efficiency is an imperative. Collini postulates a bold but surmountable task (or cliché): “to think again, think more clearly, and then to press for something better.” Johnson’s policy appears to be a short-term solution, but in reality, it entrenches a view of higher education as a machine for creating economic output. It is this perspective which posits that university should only be for the few for whom it is most efficient. It is this approach that will ensure inequality within our higher education system remains.