We must reform the university market

3 Aug 2017

Sparked by Labour’s election pledge, the debate over the abolition of student fees has burst back into the political spotlight. With increasing numbers of graduates finding themselves mired in debt, it is little wonder that the most popular party amongst young voters is keen to tackle this spiralling problem. However, the promise to address the issue of exorbitant fees remains only one step on the path towards genuine university reform. To truly transform higher education, the current university system must be entirely overturned.


As it stands, most academic institutions are run as profit-based businesses with the primary aim of attracting ‘customers’ willing to pay around £9000 per year for their qualifications. The cost of student fees has risen incrementally since their introduction in 1998, with most students now also taking out a maintenance loan of around £3,600 per year to cover living costs. The result is that the average bachelor’s degree will result in over £38,000 of debt (more for postgrads or those doing a year abroad, less for those with bursaries). This is then repaid (with interest) once the graduate is earning over £21,000 per year.


The effect this has become more and more obvious each year. Graduates are left with an unsustainable amount of debt, which according to the Complete University Guide would take around twenty-four years to pay off on the reasonable postgrad salary of £25,000. This serious financial burden weighs down upon all but the most privileged or high-earning graduates, creating a strange sort of plutocratic elitism based around the ability to pay one’s debts. It is therefore in every graduate’s best interests to choose both a university and degree programme that will guarantee them safe and well-paid employment (rather than something they actually enjoy). This, however, is where we find the most serious flaw in our university system.


Being largely profit-based businesses, universities are keen to drive up admissions figures as much as possible. More students mean more fees, which into turn requires the creation of either more places on existing courses or new courses to be made available. The sudden flood of entrants means that existing degree programmes suddenly lose their value, whilst many newer courses are marketed to lower-achieving A-level students who could gain much more from proper vocational training.


This obsession with profit maximisation has spread to the university faculties as well. Departments often find that subjects with low intakes are simply cut, along with the relevant members of staff. Cheaper, less-qualified staff can then be brought in to teach the money-making subjects that often leave students with a weaker degree. This phenomenon particularly affects humanities subjects, which due to their relative lack of materials are used as ‘cash cows’ by universities in order to fund more expensive science degrees. The incentive is then to cut humanities budgets further whilst increasing student intake, thereby making them as profitable as possible. It is little wonder that, at my own university, highly employable but unpopular BA subjects such as Dutch and Slovene disappeared completely.


Depressing though the above may be, there is an alternative way. Heavy investment in vocational further education would provide many non-academic school leavers with far more valuable skills than those currently offered by most new degree programmes. Effective vocational training would also increase the value of university degrees for those who choose the academic path, as degrees would become rarer and less profit-driven. With the university intake then dramatically lower, the government would find it much easier to sustain those remaining students with grants, meaning that poorer students are no longer at a disadvantage once they graduate. As for school leavers who prefer to work or find practical training, government subsidisation and a higher apprentice wage (as opposed to the pitiful £3.50 it is now) would make sure that their training is affordable.


The French, with their infinite capacity for lyrical vocabulary, created the term bouleversement to mean an upheaval, upset or shaking-up. British higher education desperately needs a period of bouleversement in order to break the unsustainable market system and provide genuine qualifications without the burden of debt. Well-established vocational training and a consequent drop in university places would ensure that degrees increased in value, poorer students could afford higher education and non-university school leavers would learn genuinely useful skills. We may have a long way to go, but scrapping university fees would be a good way to start.


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