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I'm really gutted about the outcome of the university funding vote last night. I wasn’t expecting the Lib Dems would throw their ideals out of the window. This new deal on tuition fees is a lot fairer than things we’ve had in the past, but it is still massively wrong, and it doesn’t negate the fact that the LDs claimed to be against the principle of students paying for their education. Their argument – ‘we didn’t win the election, so we have to go along with this’ is false logic. If that’s what you believe, it shouldn’t change just because you haven’t won an election.
The fundamental thing is that it was a stupid idea of Labour to say 50% of school leavers should go to university. University should be for academic subjects, and for those bits of vocational training like medicine or architecture that have always been delivered in this way. It was unbelievably arrogant of Labour to suggest that degrees make people more valuable; they don’t. Skills make people valuable, and a lot of skills can and should be learned in work, in apprenticeships and day-release schemes, not on expensive, unsuitable university courses. The simple rules of scarcity dictate that if you increase the number of people going to university you devalue the degrees they get at the end of it. I find it completely breathtaking that the government failed to see that an increase in students would just lead to a glut of graduates in the job market.
Because we have too many students, the government cannot pay for them all to go to university. The students have to pay for themselves, and because there are more of them, the degrees they incur debt to attain are devalued. People who choose not to get into debt by going to university are made to feel less valuable in comparison, which is nonsense, as there are many many high-paid, worthwhile and enormously valuable careers that simply don’t need a Bachelor of Arts qualification. It creates class boundaries by dividing people into have-degrees and have-nots. University should be just one of many options for school leavers looking to better themselves. At the moment sixth formers think they have only one, hugely expensive choice.
But by far the most damaging and insiduous effect of making students pay for their education is that it normalises debt. People my age and younger now think it is perfectly normal to have at least ten or fifteen grand sitting over their heads, and it makes you cavalier about taking on more debt. Why not run up a credit card or two, when you’ve already got three years of fees to pay for? What’s the difference? The government is now saying most people will never pay off these debts, as though this is a good thing that people will live their whole lives in debt. Is that a healthy way to live? How would that make you feel about yourself?
The one good thing about all this is that it seems to have radicalised a whole generation. I remember going to vote while I was at university at the on-campus polling station, only to find that I was the second person to have bothered doing so by two in the afternoon. A lot of my friends didn’t vote and had no political opinions whatsoever. Now we see the brilliant sight of students disrupting the Turner Prize award ceremony, and they’re occupying everything, and out on the streets everywhere. This can only be a good thing for democracy. My old politics tutor at Bath always used to say that voter apathy is the first step towards totalitarianism; it doesn’t seem to be a problem now.
We’ve been sold a false promise that a degree is the answer to all things in this society. That’s just not true: education is the answer, and opportunities, but these should come in many different forms, and without life-long, debt-filled strings attached.
It is right to condemn the violence and vandalism that broke out last night, but this violence didn't form in a vacuum. People get angry and scared when they're kettled, as I know from experience, and they get angry when the feel their voices aren't being heard. This isn't the reaction of a nihilist mob bent on destruction: it's the extreme edge of a generation who are all furiously frustrated.
I entirely agree with your point about the devaluation of a scarce resource (the degree) by making it commonplace. Education is a wonderful thing, so much so that no one would disagree with a certain amount of it being compulsory, from ages 5 - 16 say. But the ludicrous 50% ambition almost makes a degree compulsory, and given that employers will wonder why anyone applying for a job has not got a degree when they are so easy to get will mean that in effect a degree is compulsory. Presumably the 50% target is some attempt at equality, but its a bizarre sort of equality that forces you to take a course of study that might not suit, the only real value of which is that its expected. Equality should not mean bringing everyone down to the same level.
It is interesting to see so many young people apparently so agitated about a price increase. It is a shame to see them wasting so much effort fighting the wrong battle. There were earlier battles which should have been fought and were much more important. In reverse order (I think).
So the protests are interesting and encouraging, but massively misplaced.