Honestly, I thought that no one could irritate me more than former NUS President Mandy Telford: I remember cringing at her pathetic debating skills every time she came on Newsnight, only to be battered down by the Minister for Farm Vehicle Education Development in North East Caernarfonshire, or some such nonsense. Her successor, Kat Fletcher, is slightly more articulate, but keeps up the honourable tradition of making students seem like ungrateful, money-grabbing narcissists. Frankly, I’m embarrassed that they claim to represent me.
It is with something less than delight, then, that I approach Fletcher’s latest column in the Guardian, bemoaning, as usual, the forthcoming tuition fee increase. This time, her cause célèbre is the 4% drop in applications for next year, which she argues is its consequence.
My favourite phrase comes towards the end of the piece: “We at the NUS believe it is imperative that the market and the notion of variability are removed from higher education, which must not become a commodity reserved for those who can afford it.” Forget that the real value (and likely reward) of an Oxbridge degree, for example, is far greater than the vast majority of other British universities. Let’s charge them the same. This is lunacy: perhaps Fletcher should actually stop by a university and sit in on an economics lecture. An Oxbridge student is taught by better teachers, at a higher level, and undoubtedly sits more rigorous assessments than one at some low-grade former polytechnic. This is ultimately a more expensive (and, I would argue, more fiscally rewarding) pursuit. To retain the sort of talent that Oxbridge and, indeed, other Russell Group universities need to thrive, the Government directs a much greater degree of money towards these top institutions, and rightly so. Ultimately, a system without variability in pricing refuses to recognize the inherent differences between institutions, and creates a situation where those at the lesser universities are propping up the elite.
Furthermore, while fees are rising, the new system of repayment strikes me as inherently fairer and more egalitarian. The £1,200 upfront payment, which undoubtedly placed a burden on families close to the threshold, particularly those with more than one child, is being replaced by an extension of the student loan system. University will, once more, be free at the point of use. The variable tuition fees, £3,000-a-year at most top universities, will be integrated into the student loan. Poorer students will have their student support extended to cover the fee increase. Still, Fletcher argues, those from traditionally low-income backgrounds will be dissuaded by this burden of debt. Well, I’m sorry, but higher education doesn’t come cheap; graduates earn, on average, over £400,000 more over their working careers than those without a degree. Frankly, if someone cannot recognize that a loan with a real interest rate of 0, to be paid back when (and if) he or she can afford it, is a fantastic deal, I wonder whether they are university material in the first place.
Fletcher champions the idea of university as an engine of socially mobility, and consequently strongly advocates the government’s fabled target of 50% of sixth-form school leavers at university. Simultaneously, and unsurprisingly, she argues vociferously about the injustice of increasing fees — or, indeed, charging them at all. Where, I’m forced to wonder, does she propose to find the money to finance this continuing expansion of the costly higher education sector? The British taxpayer already subsidizes undergraduate education to an astonishing degree; one only needs to look to the fees charged to incoming foreign students to get a sense of the true cost of education.
Here’s a novel idea for the NUS: instead of this tireless rapacity, why not consider the future of higher education in the UK? Instead of incessantly whinging about tuition fees, how about proposing a realistic alternative funding solution? Instead of blithely decrying the horrors of ‘the market’, while trying to use universities to promote some impossibly utopian social vision, consider that the state of British higher education is in steady decline and that essential injection of cash must come from somewhere.