Students from next year on are no longer being asked to contribute towards the cost of their degrees or “top-up” the contribution made by government but in most cases cover the entire cost of their teaching. Fees will rise from the current approximately £3,000 to at least £6,000 and probably more like £9,000. What extra will the student get for this 100-200% increase? Precisely nothing as the government withdraws all funding for teaching except for some limited support for STEM subjects. Some ‘top’ universities have already signalled that they will seek to charge the full £9,000 and there is an expectation that post 92 universities (or the former polys) will charge closer to £6,000 or £7,000 though, none have signalled that this is what they intend to do. In either case universities will find that with the teaching grant gone they will actually be no better off and in the case of those who feel they can’t or shouldn’t charge the full £9,000 many colleges will actually have less money. Unless of course they increase student numbers and class sizes and lower the quality of the learning experience. In short some students might pay and extra £3-6,000 a year for less. Staff will be expected to deliver more, again for less, especially as salaries are frozen and may well actually decrease in the universities charging less.
Under the proposed changes most students will leave university with a debt for tuition fees alone of somewhere between £18,000 and £27,000, factor in living costs, add on interest and you are looking at a bill in the region of £50,000 per degree. The notion that this won’t be a deterrent to going to university or a life term burden for most young people who do is simply not sustainable.
To start quantifying degrees in financial terms is to arguably play the politician’s game but can a fee of £50,000 be justified on any grounds? The higher than average life term earnings of graduates is often cited but ask anyone working in the arts or the public sector about these supposedly high earnings and they will simply smile. When only 10% of the population went to university a degree may have been a passport to (if not even then a guarantee of) higher earnings but no longer. A degree is simply seen as a prerequisite in many walks of life. 30 years ago in a whole range of professions A-Levels would have been sufficient to start and there was an expectation that the employer would provide on the job training or time off for day release study. The modern neo-liberal employer in Britain though wants it both ways; they seek ever more qualified staff but expect to pay no part of the cost for the training needed. In an entirely regressive move to a Victorian model people are now expected to pay for the privilege of learning skills need by employers.
In terms of protest at these increases there will be marches, sit-ins, possibly strikes. One imagines much of this to be water off a duck’s back to a government that is fast showing a callous disregard for the public sector that makes Thatcher look like a caring socialist. What may well turn the tide is the rising consciousness in the middle classes, those Daily Mail readers whose instincts are often conservative with a small c and who often vote for the Tories (forget the LibDems they will disappear as any kind of meaningful political party).
The middle class group are waking up to the idea that their sons and daughters may well not now be able to attend university at these prices or that every asset they have will need to be sold to cover the cost (or equity realised to use the neo liberal parlance). This group for whom a free liberal education has never perhaps been a priority may now begin to voice their disquiet and seek to overturn these proposals. The government has no fear of lecturers and students but it needs the middle class vote.