Well What Did We Expect?

Posted on July 27, 2010


By Christopher Dingle – Vice President Education, Kingston University Students’ Union

Well it has been another exciting week in the student funding debate. Following the hope provoking comments of our Secretary for State for Business, Innovation and Skills recently we now have some more clear indications of what the government intends to do about student funding. They don’t know.

Mr Cable it seems has said one thing, only to be shot down by a ‘senior conservative source’ who has dismissed the idea of a graduate tax being adopted. It seems a clear example, of the pantomime horse. The head going one way, and the rear end the other way. I’ll leave you to decide which is which?

The reality is that the government have no more idea of what they are going to do about higher education than the average plebeian in town on a saturday night. Nor is their message any more coherent.

The problem is that no one is quite sure what the higher education system is there to provide. Students are now unsure what the point in a degree is as graduate unemployment has risen. The last government’s policy of higher education for the masses, has meant that degrees have been devalued and has changed the expectation of large parts of the population who all now want top jobs.

The question surrounding how to we fund universities will depend to a great extent to what to we expect of universities. Do we expect higher education to be open to all? In which case as a public service should it not be publicly funded? Do we expect universities to be there to provide a skilled workforce for specific jobs? Should industry bear some of the burden? Or should we privatise the sector? The question boils down to one of need. What does the economy need from higher education? Clearly graduates are not in as high demand as they once were.

The recent elevation of BPP law school to the status of a university college, could be an indication of what is to come. Privitisation may be the way that the government intend to go. But are universities ready for a large number of well educated customers who don’t want 9am lectures?
Almost certainly not. The government need to start to be clear about their expectations. But they need to understand the market and what the customer (students) want, before they can address the funding issue. They need to understand the role of universities before deciding who should pay.

Ultimately universities in this country have a strong tradition on high quality education, and the production of graduates and research that is world class. In this time of austerity, everyone must tighten their belts. Students belts are already tight enough. The government and the Browne committee should think twice before asking them to tighten them further.