The Death of Widening Participation?

Posted on September 26, 2010


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

The higher education sector is currently undergoing a time of significant uncertainty and is under threat more than it has been for many years. The higher education sector has been steadily expanding since the first stones were laid at Bologna, Paris and Oxford up until the present day; however economic difficulties and the need to balance the budget deficit are now about to take their toll on higher education.

Shortly Lord Browne, the former CEO of British Petroleum, will report the findings and recommendations of his committee on tuition fees. It is widely expected that he will recommend that the tuition fee cap be increased to £7,000 per year. This is approximately a doubling of the current cap and could raise average student debt to levels that are unprecedented and akin to a mortgage.

The effect that such an increase will have, couldl be utterly devastating for higher education and will have a huge effect on Kingston University. Kingston University, before 1992 Kingston Polytechnic, has a history of widening participation in higher education. We have traditionally been an institution committed to providing students from non traditional university backgrounds with a university experience that allows them to grow and improves social mobility. A recent report by the National Union of Students and HSBC found that up to 70% of students may be deterred from university by £7,000 tuition fees. The students that will be deterred are our students and we will suffer as an institution as a result.

But the wider question is one of why do we have universities? Art 2 of the First Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights guarantees the right to education for all; yet the recent A-level results saw over 150,000 students turned away from universities. In a time of economic difficulty can we fund education for all?

The reality is that we cannot currently afford this system, as our funding is insufficient for the task; but raising tuition fees to these levels will decimate the higher education system and universities like Kingston will have to change their entire ethos to cope with a new world and support students with unprecedented levels of debt. It can only be hoped that we do not lose our identity as a university in the process.

The NUS graduate tax proposal is one that we as a students’ union whole heartedly support. It is progressive and does not hang a noose around the neck of students, in the way a mortgage like tuition debt will. The NUS proposal links earnings to contributions and places a cap on the maximum contribution. It is fair and progressive and will allow the higher education sector and universities like Kingston, to remain organisations that bring change and improve society. But the key point is it keeps education free at the point of entry. It does not burden the student. That is paramount.

The election of Ed Miliband and the recent events at the Liberal Democrat conference present our society with a golden opportunity. Every liberal democrat MP signed the NUS pledge to vote against a rise in fees. Students who voted for them will not forget this! Ed Miliband who has declared himself in favour of a graduate tax would seem to make a potential ally for the liberals, who at their conference voted to explore cross party support for a graduate tax. This could be the first rebellion of the coalition in the making. The NUS will now certainly look to exploit this.

The government are now going to have to look at Lord Browne’s recommendations and it can only be hoped that Mr Cable and Mr Willet’s look at the long term effects that a tuition fee increase will have when making their decision. British universities have a long and proud tradition of excellent teaching and research that should be protected and should continue long into the future. We at Kingston, hope that we can continue to bring a university education, to all who wish to pursue it.

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