I'm torn over whether university should be totally free or have some form of contribution - it's a toughie and I don't think there's an easy answer. If it's totally free, then it means people who don't access HE are paying for those of us who do; but the argument that counters this is that HE is an inherently good thing for the nation. However, there have been some interesting mess-ups about the recent fee hike, which, like a lot of the rest of the stuff this government has thrown at us, was rushed and doesn't seem terribly well thought through.
Today OFFA has released the fact that a third of universities are planning on charging £9k - and the average will be over £8k - a year - for university. This is in stark contrast to the comments coming out of Downing Street not that long ago, in particular from Dave's Deputy PM and Simon Hughes, who went on and on about it only being a 'few', and it seems that they all live up to the 'access' criteria they have to abide by. So much for this only being a minor problem. (On that point, the government has said that a fee increase will not put off poorer students from applying to university. Yet they have been going on about only a few universities charging the extra. Is the government suggesting that poorer students will still apply because there are still cheap options available - as what else would be the benefit of some universities remaining cheaper? It's all very confused.)
So what has this done to the government's finances? Well apparently the fee increases may make loans unaffordable! Whether that is true or not is hard to know - but as a medical student, this is of particular interest...
Undergraduate medical students currently pay year 1-4, then there is an NHS bursary for year 5 and 6 (or the last two years at any rate - the graduate bursary is less generous). This means that, excluding living costs (which are considerable, especially in the clinical years), a medical degree costs the student around £14,000 (which is probably about a tenth of the true cost). Once the fees raise, it will cost £36,000. However, this bursary has only won a reprieve for a year - after 2012 intake, it looks like it will be removed, because it is UNAFFORDABLE! So the government cannot even afford it's own fees! That means that a medical course will cost up to £54,000 - £40k more than at present.
You might argue that because doctors earn good money this isn't a problem. However, let's not forget that doctors are public servants - and are performing a vital function. The best doctors are in it because they want, at heart, to help and heal - not because they want to earn lots. We need the best, academically and personally, to be in the profession. Yet if we tell them they must pay a lot more than any other degree, what on earth does that say. Not only does it say that we don't value education - but also that we don't value medics. If you study medicine, in other words, you'll be paying for it for years. So much for wanting a better NHS for patients...
But, of course, medicine isn't the point when we look at fee increases, according to the proponents of the idea. The problem we 'romantics' about education have is that we think all education and degrees are like the ones that used to exist - the idea of a degree for a degree's sake. Well, maybe. Maybe some degrees aren't terribly useful. Maybe some of the degree subjects could be taught in different ways. Maybe some things do provide benefit solely to the individual. Maybe payment for those should work in a different way. Maybe the arbitrary level of 50% of the population going to university was pointless and hasn't acheived much (surely getting the best kids from any socio-economic background to university rather than just increasing numbers is a far more sensible definition of 'access'). But that doesn't mean that increasing the fees across the board is the answer - simply making the current system, a very much imperfect system, affordable, rather than fixing it, seems a bit pointless.
The associated 'access' argument about allowing some students in to universities with lower grades is also missing the point. Schemes like ones run at some of the top universities that take children with natural talent but poorer grades, and get them up to speed, are very sensible, and to be applauded. The question that isn't being asked, however, is the most important one - why the hell do these schemes need to exist? What on earth is wrong with our school system that allows that to happen? My advice to government ministers desperate to meddle in universities and reduce the private school intake - sort the damned school system out first. Give the kids a level playing field and give them a chance. And don't try the money argument on me.
'We can't afford it' is the new phrase of government - that's the main reasoning for the cuts. But we can afford Libya (which has prevented genocide and which is thus fully justified). We can afford to help bail out Ireland. We can afford helping the IMF bail out Greece. We can afford the Olympics. Some of these are essential and important, of course. But if we can afford to do them, we have the money to do so - or at least we are willing to borrow to do so. That rather removes the government's 'necessary fast and deep cuts' arguments doesn't it. How about our poorest and most needy being 'essential and important'? And how about the country's future - at the mercy of its education - being 'essential and important'?
What a mess.