A year before the next general election is due the Labour Government is proposing another increase in top up fees for UK students. Currently universities can charge up to £3,000 per year. It is being proposed that they can be raised to £7,000. This would not be implemented until after the next general election.
The record of New Labour on higher education has gone from bad to worse. In 1998 student grants were abolished and loans introduced. Then fees were introduced at around £1,000. A proposal for top fees up to £3,000 was introduced in 2004, to be implemented after the general election in 2005. Top up fees were implemented in 2006. Originally they were known as variable fees as the government decided that universities (maybe the most prestigious?) could have the option of raising student fees to £3,000. The reality was that nearly all universities and colleges chose to move to top up fees and now charge students £3,000 for their courses. It was not optional at all. Not even the Tories had dared to carry out these measures.
The result of all this has been that students leave university now heavily in debt – estimated to be £12,000 – £15,000 at the start of their working lives. The National Union of Students predict that raising top up fees to £7,000, which the government is proposing, could leave many students as much as £32,000 in debt. This is very bad news in the present economic climate. Are we not being told that debt levels have contributed to the current crisis? This rise in top up fees will hit most heavily those students who do not come from affluent homes and those who will not go into high pay jobs in banking and finance! So much for widening access to higher education.
Part-time students (40% of the student population) do not even have the opportunity to apply for loans to pay for their courses – they will have to find funds for their fees up front. But the distinction between being a part-time and full time student is being blurred as more and more students who are registered as full time, in reality have to work to pay their way through college. In 2000 the TUC estimated that this was as high at 75% of “full-time” students.
2009 is the year when the first students who paid top up fees graduate and they could not have faced a worse job market. The government has argued that graduates will go into well paid jobs, but they must start repaying their loans once they are earning £15,000 a year – hardly a high salary! This year the Association of Graduate Recruiters has reported that 65% of firms have cut graduate recruitment. Banks have cut graduate recruits by 28%. Many graduates will never be high paid. Indeed many graduates start on a salary of less than £15,000. This year students are being advised to take voluntary work if they cannot find paid employment – a suggestion many employers are likely to exploit. In this situation it would not be unlikely for the students’ loan company to hit serious financial trouble and have to be bailed out by the government.
What about the universities themselves? As government support for higher education has declined – by 40% in real terms per student between 1976-1996 (Association of University Teachers 2001 election leaflet), the number of students to academic staff has increased, from 9 to 1 in the 1980 to 17 to1 in 1998. The largest increases in expansion took place in the new universities (former polytechnics) but even London University colleges have grown two and a half times since the 1980s and Oxbridge by 50%. This represents a decline in the quality of student life. Students find that they are not getting sufficient attention from hard pressed academic staff and sometimes they even struggle to find a seat in the canteen or the library.
To compensate for lack of government funding in the face of pressures to meet targets on recruitment, increasingly university heads are treating their institutions as commercial businesses and their students as a source of profit. The LSE student magazine, The Beaver reported how shocked students were referred to as “loss-making” at a students union meeting, by the LSE director, Howard Davies. A new breed of university heads look to students as part of their business plans, milking the lucrative overseas student market. Since the 1980s overseas students in the UK have been charged the full economic cost for their course. They can be paying around £20,000 or more for a master’s course. This is “what the market will bear” – what many heads would like to charge UK and EU students if the limit on top up fees were to be removed. The overseas student market in the UK is thought to be worth £2.5 billion, and accounts for 43% of postgraduate students in higher education institutions in the UK. But this creates potential problems for the universities – will overseas students still be able to afford to come? Many come from China where there is already growing graduate unemployment. Students, seen as consumers, demand high standards (fair enough) but can they demand the right to a degree? Many academic staff struggle to support students whose first language is not English and they express concerns with the extent of plagiarism.
To see students as cost- effective only in terms of whether their fees cover the cost of their education is completely short-sighted. What about the contribution the student will play in the economy and society at large as a result of their qualifications? The AUT leaflet in 2001 quoted a report that showed how £100 spent in higher education generated a further £73 in the economy as a whole. Society needs doctors, teachers, social workers and other qualified people.
In the light of the recession applications to university increased this year by 8%, but the government is scaling down its target of having 50% participation in higher education. The increase in the numbers in higher education has been significant – 1 in 20 in the 1960s, by 1997 this was 1 in 3 of 18 year olds. But this has not widened access and surveys have shown that the poorest 25% of households are still excluded. Those from lower income groups who do enter higher education tend to go to the least prestigious institutions with the highest drop out rates.
So any increase in top up fees must be opposed. In 2004 the government only got top up fees passed by five votes – 316 to 311 – a government which had a majority of 161, such was the scale of opposition with the Parliamentary Labour Party. There should be a return to public funding to ensure that all those who can benefit from higher education should be able to attend. Education should be seen as in investment for life not as a profit making activity.