Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Tuition Fees

In last week's Queen's Speech, the plans for legislation that will allow universities to charge students up to £3000 a year in fees were unveiled. In the midst of general uprising and criticism, 130 Labour MPs (a large proportion of the government) have signed a Commons Motion voicing their opposition to these plans. If Tony Blair tries to force the issue through then he will face criticism from his own party and potentially even defeat in the House of Commons votes, the first of which has already been postponed until after Christmas.

His opponents will cry out that the plans go against traditional Labour values of free education and that they will prevent students from poorer backgrounds from being able to choose from the full range of courses and universities, maybe even dissuade them from going to university at all. The NUS will mobilise the current crop of undergraduates, who will never be affected by the proposals and they will march and protest and chant and blow their whistles. Maybe they'll succeed in getting the plans watered down or even scrapped.

Which, if you ask me, would be a shame.

Now, I'm not normally one to agree with Tony Blair. I don't trust him or the way he governs the country. The preoccupation with spin and The Message in the early years of Labour being in power and the way the war in Iraq was handled have soured me to anything that the government and Blair, in particular, says. To me he seems like the boy who cried wolf once too often - he's manipulated the facts so often that when he's telling it straight no one believes him. No, I'd normally be rubbing my hands with glee at the trouble he's facing from his own party, like I did with the rebellion over Foundation Hospitals. But on this issue I happen to think he's doing the right thing.

I mean, why should a university education be free? It's hardly fair on those that are not able to go because they are not academic enough, is it? We have the right to an education, true, but surely it should only be free up to the point that the vast majority of the population can gain anything from it? Going to university and gaining a degree is more a privilege than a right so why should we not contribute towards the cost of it?

The argument that it would dissuade poorer students from going to university and hence make it more 'elitist' than it already is doesn't really hold any water, either. Unless you believe that the employment prospects that they leave university with are considerably worse than those from richer backgrounds. These fees won't be paid up front, like in the current arrangement, which is admittedly wrong and has almost certainly caused some teenagers to change their minds about higher education. Instead they will be in the form of a loan, interest-free I believe, that you only start to pay back post-graduation and once your salary reaches a certain level. With some government help for the poorest students, I don't think this should be an issue at all. Although that won't stop Blair's critics from pounding on about it.

On a more general note, these fees will allow universities to offer a much better range and quality of courses and conduct more cutting edge research than they currently do. That can never be a bad thing, can it? Are there any other sources of income that universities can exploit? Corporate sponsorship could play a part, though that would likely be limited just to subjects worthy of the investment, like biological sciences. Could you see a company agreeing to fund dry, academic subjects like Classics or English Literature, subjects they would get just minimal return on their investment from? No, the only other way the universities are going to get the sort of money they want, and need, is through the government massively increasing the amount they allot to higher education. And that would have to come at the expense of some other equally worthy cause because the electorate will not tolerate a hike in income tax.

It's time we realised that we don't get something for nothing any more. Especially when it's not something that everyone has access to.

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