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On tuition fees and protests November 12, 2010

Posted by Fiona in Big things, Sheer bloody-mindedness, Uncategorized, University.

I find, at the grand old age of twenty, that I am getting more and more conservative about the things I find important. My values can essentially be summed up in the two things my mother taught me: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and that people can do whatever they like as long as it’s not hurting anyone and they don’t necessarily want me to join in.  Other than that, I seem to be developing a far less aggressively socialist approach to life than I used to have.

This is quite interesting.  I used to be very aggressively socialist.  I now feel bad, on an increasingly regular basis, for not being so.  The fact is, that sometimes I am embarassed to be a student, and sometimes I don’t like student protests.  I know Johann Hari Of The Independent Comment Column Fame says that protests are actually useful, even if we don’t think they are at the time, but personally I find Johann Hari self-righteous and irritating.  (This also appears to be a minority opinion.  Please don’t shoot me.)

There are two overarching clichés attached to students, and the first of these is a load of rowdy layabouts pissed out of their skulls and breaking things, and the second is a highly motivated but pathetically idealist group who will protest about the nearest thing and be fervently socialist until the moment they graduate, when they realise it was all an impossible dream, go away and work for big corporations.  Now I don’t like either of these stereotypes, but the fact is that they’re there, and the fact is that if you get 50,000 students together, they’re both going to come out of the woodwork and be the first thing used to demean everyone who takes part.

And then, when any one of those 50,000 steps a toe out of line, suddenly nobody between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five gets taken seriously any more.

I don’t like violence.  Quite frankly, if it’s used at all I’d rather it were used for something other than determining how many years you can afford to stay in the ivory tower for.  I am aware that is a very inflammatory way of putting it, and that it probably says a lot about me that I don’t like at all, but honestly, what with the state that everything is in at the moment, I think tuition fees are the least of our worries.

I also hate not being taken seriously.  Over the last year, I’ve been around while two protests have been going on: this, and the Union Society BNP Debacle of last year.  I think students protest too easily, and if they carry on like this, it’ll just be crying wolf.

The trouble for me is that when I talk about tuition fees, like when I talk about numerous other contentious topics, there is a little voice in my head at the end of every rationalising thing I say, and it goes, ‘but that doesn’t make it right!’ There is a lot that is wrong in this world, and as far as I’m concerned, not having lots of funding for education, research, and the arts, is one of them.  I would bloody love to live in a society with all those things, and I think it is the greatest shame that the budgets on them are being cut, and I feel on some level cheated because I didn’t ask for that, I didn’t want it and I didn’t vote for it.  Rather grudgingly right now, I value democracy more than all of those things, even though that doesn’t make it right!

It’s all so conflicting.  There are too many students.  There are not enough places.  There are not enough graduates.  There is not enough funding.  There are degree courses in Celebrity Media Studies, Criminology and Dance, and that course on Lady Gaga.  There are too many new applicants per job.  Poor students are missing out, rich students are having to work harder to prove they can actually work rather than get a degree off Daddy’s back, and we’re so out of line with Europe it’s not even funny.  I just want to scream, what do you want?! People are just pulling and pulling in every direction and the upshot of it all is that yes, if I’m honest with you, I would pay £9000 a year for the degree I’m getting.  And yes, I’d consider a Masters course on top of that.  And I would do it, and enjoy it, and I wouldn’t mind much more than I mind at the moment having to pay it back for the next few decades.

I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.



1. Terri (terdotty on rav) - November 12, 2010

Definitely not a bad person in my view! Definitely an interesting person though. Is there really a course on Lady Gaga??!! Never went to uni myself but my three daughters – eldest graduated in law (just!), now working in advertising in London, one in last year of fine art, t’other at the end of two years of marine science (yes, they are all very different!) Personally, I loved your post, think it was honest and thoughtful x

2. Lucy - November 12, 2010

It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Personally I disagree that this occasion was ‘protesting too easily’. My exact feelings on the Browne report can be found here, and I think that if if takes a 50,000 strong protest to draw the media’s attention to the fact that young people do give a damn about their futures and about the principle of education, then so be it. I think that the government is getting some of these cuts decisions badly, badly wrong, and that they need to know that no, it’s not OK.

Just a shame that the inevitable idiots had to turn up.

3. Wasanifu - November 12, 2010

I know that for me, coming out of University with £18,000 worth of debt is scaring me shitless.

Make that £37,500 and I *know* I would not have been able to go to University (That’s assuming base maintenance stays at the pitiful 3.5k a year it is now)

Add in that out of my own and parents money I’ve probably spent an additional £2k a year in order to just *live* and I’ve had to get a part time job in order to roughly make ends meet and it’s just impossible.

I don’t think your an awful person because of the way you feel, your fully entitled to your views. Honestly those who were violent give the rest of us a really bad name.

However I think one of the best things about living in the UK today is that *anyone* can get an education. Sure drop out rates are high and sure there are degrees that some people might think are stupid, I do Animal Behaviour and Welfare; If there’s any degree that makes people go “So… what you gonna do with that?” then it’s mine, and yeah I’m probably going to graduate and only be earning £15k a year, but I honestly want to work with animals and have really enjoyed my degree. If tuition fees went up, we’d have had to considered being in full time employment and working up and I’d never have got the experiences I have had.

At the end of the day when this bill passes it’s going to be only the rich who can go to university. I know it’s not stereotypical of all students, but at my University it’s the rich kids who hardly work and scrape through with low qualifications. The ones who are driving 59 or 10 plate cars, and spend their student loan within a week and then *still* go out partying because Mummy and Daddy give them an allowance that affords them to do that. The majority of my fellow students are from poor backgrounds, and we work *hard* we hardly go and party, we have to hold down jobs, some people on my course are doing it full time *with* full time work to make ends meet and it just feels like yet again we’re being punished for not having rich parents and being trust fund kids. It hardly seems fair.

We’re incredibly underfunded on my degree. Animal Science makes up around 1/2 the student body. ALL the funding goes to Equine and Sports Sciences. These are also funded by their own industry, they host sports events, training for the local big team, *sponsor* part of the stadium in the city (!) and host multiple equine events each year, the income from this must be incredible. AS never see a penny, when we need labs we have to use Equine or the A-Level labs, we don’t even have our own. It doesn’t matter how much tuition fees are being raised we will *still* not see any more money then we already do, and I’m sure many universities are the same.

Plus you have to wonder if they’re making student loans available for this £9k why not keep the fees at £3.5 and put £5.5k your loaning to students into the NHS or something? I mean lets face it the point of us getting an education is to get better jobs which means paying stupid levels of tax for the rest of our lives!

Ok, so there will be cheaper colleges, but it’s just a throw back to the Polytechs, and we’re going to be turned away from jobs because so and so could, well essentially, *buy* an education y’know. I’m not saying that there won’t be people who will work hard at the more expensive universities, but we all know that there will be people who just shove money at institutions and sail through on a third but because they’ve gone to prestigious University they’ll get the job. I mean that already exists with Oxbridge so it’s not too far to assume it’ll happen with this.

Gargh, I didn’t mean for this to get so long, hot button issue lol! Don’t feel you need to reply to me.

Lucy - November 13, 2010

I completely sympathise, Wasanifu.

W.r.t. the end of your seventh paragraph – no, the universities will not see any more money through increased tuition fees. It will simply enable the government to reduce their own contribution. And if anyone thinks I’m saying that out of pure cynicism, I’m not. It’s simply what has happened already since the introduction of top-up fees for my year, in 2006.

4. Jenny - November 14, 2010

Fi, I know exactly what you mean. I used to be deeply socialist, and I think on an idealistic level I still am. But like you I think it just isn’t possible to provide a decent education to this sheer volume of students at the current level of funding. And it has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is us. I don’t believe that half the degrees out there *need* to be degrees, if that makes sense. I don’t know why society today insists on people being graduates to do jobs that twenty or thirty years ago they would have done with A-levels or even as school-leavers. It seems utterly daft.

As for this idea that rich students don’t work as hard, I’m sorry, but that’s insulting. I personally wouldn’t say my parents were ‘rich’ as such, but you’re right – I’m not trying to hold down a job at the same time as doing my degree, and I’m not badly off – thought I don’t have a car, and I don’t go out every night. There is no way that we ‘buy’ our education, or that people ‘shove money at institutions and sail through on a third but because they’ve gone to prestigious University they’ll get the job’.

As for ‘stupid levels of taxation’ – what do you want? Better levels of public service, or lower taxation? You cannot have both.

Personally I think the only way to relieve the pressure on the education system is, frankly, to cut the education system as a whole down hugely. It would take years, but we don’t need degrees in Lady Gaga studies or whatever the hell else, frankly. Those are things you could possibly do as a PhD thesis or a paper or perhaps an MA or MSc after a decent degree. Employers should not expect or demand graduates to fill positions for which a degree does not equip – or over-equips – a potential candidate.

The thing is, degrees were designed to be about the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment – about interest and academia and not about having a good-looking CV. It doesn’t seem fair that the arts are so completely disrespected in many senses by the current fad for hard technologically-, industrially- and entrepreneurship-focussed degrees. My friend Dom elaborates on that point here.

Frankly, anyway, it’s worth pointing out that in the current system the fees are paid on a loans system. The interest rate is effectively zero as it tracks inflation. You do not start paying back your loan until you hit a certain salary threshold, and if after a set amount of time (I can’t remember how long) you still have loan left to repay, it is written off. However if you earn enough to pay back your entire loan at a pretty low percentage from your income within the twenty-five years, you’re also earning enough that it probably doesn’t actually make a notable difference to your living comfort, ability to pay the mortgage or shoe your children.

It is not an ideal system, and no-one really wants to be set up with this amount of debt, but it is not made difficult for us. And if you can’t earn enough in twenty-five years (if I’m right about that) to pay back the current £3500/yr, what difference does it make if you’re nominally owing £7000-odd/yr instead – you’re still not going to be able to pay it back.

I think you’ll find that just as when top up fees were first introduced, all universities will actually charge their fees at the upper limit of the new cap – which is £9000. I don’t think a degree from Keele or Portsmouth will cost less, to the student, than a degree from Oxbridge, for both of these reasons.

For what it’s worth, I think the system is entirely wrong, and I think university should be free and accessible purely on academic merit. But for that to be the case we would need to completely ransack the system – cut the number of places, downgrade some universities to HE colleges and close others altogether, put hundreds of people out of work – and we cannot now go back.

I hate that I possibly sound like a terrible person for all of this. But I think somewhere along the way, we and the government all got horribly lost on the subject of university. What happened to ‘having a trade’, to an apprenticeship being absolutely just as respected as a degree, to technical skills and abilities learnt and honed on the job and to professional pride in those kinds of skills?

Lucy - November 15, 2010

Ransack the system, I say. Just nobody’s quite had the balls to do it.

5. Fiona - November 15, 2010

Heh. ‘Quite’ makes it sound like it’s close. But I wouldn’t ransack the system either. It’s too much of a change, too fast.

Rather like this fees increase is too much of a change, too fast.

This is a bit of a hot button topic for me, too, or it’s on the fringes of one – my family is not poor. The only things that differentiate me from being a rah are a penchant for wearing walking boots and the fact that I seem to spend a fair bit of time clearing up after other people. You’ve almost certainly seen my reaction to the insinuation that I don’t, or don’t need to, work for my degree or my chances in life: I start frothing at the mouth and looking daggers at everyone. I resent it entirely, and it gets my back up. Having said which, I do see that if anyone’s going to get away with not working hard to get where they want, it’s someone in my position or better. I am desperate not to be the elitest one, and it’s at the back of my mind a lot of the time during this sort of discussion that people might think I am, and that they might be right. I really cannot speak for anyone else’s point of view, is the thing. It’s next to irrelevant substantially, but it does colour my views, so you may as well be aware of it.

I also disagree a bit with the idea of Oxbridge favouritism – but then I’m a Durhamite and an Oxbridge reject, so make of that what you will. What I do know is that employers are not idiots, and really, they do go on what you know rather than the university you went to – my mum works in recruitment and the institution you went to is not the be-all and end-all any more, it’s far too hit and miss. Hell, the degree classification you got isn’t the be-all and end-all either. Sure, elitism exists, and coming from certain universities is one indicator among many, but honestly, horses for courses. (For instance. Portsmouth may be nominally ex-poly, but it’s pretty damned good! Especially for things like languages, or so I’m reliably informed. I’m looking at its business school for next year, actually. Course looks the absolute business.)

Yes, is my main point, though. A lot of cuts decisions are very, very wrong indeed at the moment. But frankly, I think there are a lot worse than this one. I’m worried about the quango cuts, the justice service and the prison services being merged, the benefit cuts. Yes, tuition is a big thing, but I still think there are more pressing things to be worried about, and to complain about being not ok at all.

6. Jenny - November 22, 2010

I think I completely agree with you.

We can’t ransack the system because that would put hundreds of people out of work which they absolutely don’t deserve. It would be the Thatcher’s Mines Debacle of our time. It would be truly awful.

And furthermore, as you say, Fi, there are so many worse things ocming our way as a result of this Spending Review, and I really am peering out between my fingers to see what effect those things might have. To be honest, a change in just how much Frankly Irrelevantly Huge debt you come out of uni with (I mean, crikey, if you can’t pay it off you don’t, if you do you can, almost makes no difference how much you’re supposed to pay back on that kind of scheme) is not an issue in the same way that cuts to 4-16 education or to healthcare or care of the elderly are so very seriously going to be.

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