Girl, Interrupting

October 27, 2010

Increased student fees are not the erosion of a welfare state

But rather an opportunity..
fee increases can be beneficial to both students AND universities if done the right way

Student fees are set to increase from around £3,290 to, maybe, as the Browne report recommended, up to £14,000….

So many people find this appalling, especially those who were educated in Britain for no personal expense (or even paid something by the state) back in the day. But that was then and this is now.

There are several arguments as to why the state SHOULD pay for higher education. One of them is that state funded education leads to a more equal social model, where access across all social classes, regardless of familial income, is dependent only on ability, without any bias towards the rich. There is a fear that introducing higher student fees will basically screw the poor, e.g. less well-off students will be able to afford a higher education regardless of their ability.

However, even in the current supposedly more equal higher education model, poorer students are still at a relative disadvantage. Even though there has been a recent increase in the number of poor students who attend university in the UK, there is still disproportionate number of wealthier students at UK Universities. Such as Oxford and Cambridge, who, according to the Guardian only accepts about 1% of the poorest students. This is due in a large part to the fact that those from poorer backgrounds don’t have the same secondary school opportunities as richer public school students. Able students don’t always have the opportunity to be educated in an appropriate manner to allow them to even get into university.

In the 1970’s a much smaller percentage of students even attended university than do today, a much smaller percentage. The increase in student numbers reflects an increase in opportunity across socio-economic classes but also reflects the lack of opportunity in other available employment. But the bottom line is that with increasing student numbers in higher education, someone has to pay for it and there is a limit to what any government can pay, however socially minded.

But I think that rather than being an entirely negative thing, student fees could mean hope for the future, if done correctly, increase the educational opportunities for poorer students

1 – higher student fees University could increase the money available to make secondary schools better leading to a better chance for students from poor backgrounds (who tend to live in poor compulsory school districts) to be competitive to attend university.

2 – a fee increase means that Universities have MORE money, and MORE money means (if managed correctly) more places for students. I recently attended a talk in Parliament by Ben Wildavsky of the Kauffman Foundation and author of the book The Great Brain Race who noted that the increase in student fees at University of California, LA (UCLA) has actually led to an increase in the number of students from poor background not a decrease.

As a side note increased ‘private’ money for Universities leads to a decrease of state control, so that on a whim the state can’t decide, as this current government has, to only fund STEM subjects and not the arts. Giving Universities more control of this decision, might redress the problem.

3 – If universities implement a smart financial model NOW, such as using microfinance model similar to Kiva, like the Vittana foundation or using scholarship programs that help those who can’t afford Universities easily, there could be more money available for those who need it the most.

I think rather than focusing on the negative effect for the money that the government is definitely NOT going to give to the Universities, we may – if we are careful about our financial models, create hope for the future with a better balance for the most able students attending the best Universities, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

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