Private Education: Universities, Fees, and Futures

This post has escaped me for some time, so fraught has the political sentiment been. With student protests, planned anarchy, university sit-ins, the attack on the Royal cavalcade, we have attempted revolution on our streets once again.

Speaking of ‘revolution’, it seems ironic that my recent attention has been on the precarious ‘Horatian Ode’. Marvell’s first political statement on the regicide was written 18 months after the event. Even writing in private, sometimes there is inhibition and concern about finding your own voice, documenting your own thoughts, and realising your own future, not least when everyone around you is bubbling with opinion.

I’ve found this year less difficult in terms of my own personal views than in the way politics has become aggressively popularised in the new digital public sphere. I remember voicing concern during the election that friendship had adopted political colour in a way that had never happened before. I suspect the same to be true of this adversarial issue of tuition fees: you’re with us or against us.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides here. It is necessary to divide the issues from the vitriolic protests that were carried out in response. Charlie Brooker, as ever, does a neat line on those happenings (c. 54 mins onwards). But perhaps I can offer a snippet of my own.

Private Education, Gratis

I was incredibly fortunate to attend the independent Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, thanks to the Tories. I know this tends to ruffle feathers, and I have always tried to carry the best of the opportunities, and the least of the pretension. The Conservatives’ old ‘Assisted Places’ scheme, which was axed shortly after I started at the school, granted me a free place at an institution massively beyond my family’s financial reach. Amongst the motives for finishing this PhD is a repayment of the faith invested in me by a lot of educational bodies.

Then, I was fortunate with the tuition fee system as it was in 2003. Once again, exempt through means-testing, I could attend a fabulous institution faced only with the costs of living. The jobs I undertook, including managing a bar, helped to subsidise this enormously, and my loan is still helping to see me through to the end.

Now, though, we are approaching a more privatised model of university education which will undoubtedly change the complexion of higher education in the UK. Yet, even if I will not say outright that I agree with the rises, I understand why, from one viewpoint, they appear to be necessary.

Teaching Models and Research Models: England vs. Switzerland

Let’s take an alternative university system to our own: the Swiss. Tuition fees in Geneva are affordable – cheap, even – and they work as a flat enrolment fee. Students pay per semester and can take as many or as few courses as they wish. As such, they can afford to stretch out the experience, complementing it with part-time work or study abroad, and take longer than three years if they wish. Tutors have to be flexible to higher or lower numbers in any given semester.

The key difference is in the priority model. The teaching model in Switzerland sees the syllabus supervised by subject professors (Medieval, Early-Modern, Modern, etc) and largely devised and taught by PhD students, who are eager to supplement their research and to create a portfolio of appealing and exciting courses for the CV. Not only is teaching afforded importance in the contract, but the culture sees Swiss students respecting the ‘doctorant’ as a professional. Here in the UK, students lumbered with PhD students as course tutors often feel disillusioned or cut short. With the rise of fees, the student-turned-customer will feel more entitled to the higher echelons (I sympathise to some degree because the tutor of my first undergraduate class was a major influence in everything I have gone on to do).

The Swiss system is massively cheaper to operate. Geneva’s department turns over slightly more English undergraduates per year than Bristol (though they must take two subjects), but Bristol’s nine professors, senior lecturers, junior lecturers, readers, and so forth, all blow apart the structure of the Genevan department’s doctorant(e) staff. The disparity must run up to several hundred thousand pounds, and all for just one of the smallest departments. Magnify this universally within and across universities, and it is very easy to see how UK institutions operate on very different scales.

The Swiss system is creative and visionary. Some PhD students, I have no doubt, are rubbish tutors. Some are too solipsistic; some are too flat; some are just uninspiring. But it can work, and extremely well. Supervising professors here are looking for capable and enthusiastic teachers rather than individuals focused only on churning out 80,000 words.

UK universities, primarily the Russell Group, are built around research demands. This is where the real investment is, and where the real funding comes from. But this costs so much more to operate than a teaching model, and the demands for higher investment are relentless to keep the strongest insitutions competing globally at the highest level. For that reason, tuition fees were always likely to rise before they fell, irrespective of additional teaching cuts. Scotland, a nation with some excellent institutions and a long culture of generosity, will no doubt feel the painful blow of change to come soon. The free-market American system has shown how much the cost of the highest value degree can be, and it is a sobering thought that Oxford and Cambridge bow in deference to a number of major US institutions in several World League tables. The Browne Review might even have brought us that system. We have been spared it for now.

What Is University For?

This whole episode calls for a mature debate from all sides – the state, institutions, and future students affected by the rise – about what university should really be for. Should 50% of young people be going to university to study whatever pop-culture subject that can be dreamed up? Should universities aim to shrink before they grow? Should we see the post-92 universities revert back to polytechnics and practical skills-based colleges? Should academic departments be required to offer courses in career-related disciplines? Morevoer, with increasing numbers taking the ‘career’ decision to stay on for Masters courses in recent years while employment prospects have remained slim, should it be postgraduates that face the brunt of the rise rather than undergraduates?

The Liberal Democrats have had to face the backlash for reneging their pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees should they assume power. Where the realities have come to pass is not only in the realisation that concessions need to be found in coalition, but also in Mr Clegg’s statement that:

I think it is wrong to saddle young people with £25,000 worth of debt before they have even set foot in adult life.

Before, we could have all been forgiven for thinking that undergraduate careers constituted a rather luxurious and profligate meandering into pseudo-adult living. Real decisions began at the age of 21. Perhaps the unfortunate reality is that undergraduate degrees have now become the first real major financial or asset decision in adult life. Decisions now begin at 18. The economy simply does not have room for luxuries. Do you really want your English degree, or will experience in the workplace be more important now?

Alternatively, UK students could take their language learning more seriously and take their degrees in Europe, where, even with accommodation costs, they may find it a considerably cheaper prospect. Although Switzerland was a very difficult time, I can only promote a system that combines creativity, innovation, efficiency, professionalism, and multiculturalism. Perhaps that’s what the UK needs to aim for as a whole to get everything back on track.


One thought on “Private Education: Universities, Fees, and Futures

  1. Sorry, this comment has been rather delayed.

    Although you’ve reasonably noted some of Charlie’s Brooker’s drawbacks in the past, I am pleased that you were drawn to what I felt was the highlight of his 2010 Wipe programme, in terms of both insight and entertainment. (Your iPlayer link has now expired, though the programme lives on on YouTube with an eye patch and Jolly Roger flag.)

    Remember the frank verdict on Polonius that I posted here a while back? My verdict of Nick Clegg matches it. Few MPs have done as much as he to influence my view of politics – in that sense, if no other, he’s up there with Thatcher – and one can only hope that he can somehow improve this year, for everyone’s sake.

    I’ll admit here and now that I’ve never quite made up my mind about the Iraq War: as someone who has never lived there, fought there nor even been there, I have that luxury of indecision. Similarly, as one who already has his degree, I have the luxury of believing that the tuition fee rises are not necessarily a bad thing per se. How in Hades Mr. Clegg set himself up for such epic promise-shredding is beyond me. At one point, sitting face-to-face with an ITN interviewer, he clearly felt the heat of his seat, and seemed to blame those who didn’t vote Lib Dem for denying his party a majority government and the opportunity to uphold his promise. Hardly words to turn hearts yellow. The interview also revealed that Clegg had been getting shit for it in the most literal sense (though how the dog managed to get it through the letterbox is quite the puzzler). Perhaps he is not so much a Polonius as a Gravedigger.

    Lembit Opik hoped, at one time, to be Lib Dem leader. Now, having left Westminster, he is showing more credibility than ever before. (I’m tempted to add ‘ironically’, but I’m not sure it is.) Interviewed in The Big Issue’s Christmas edition (No. 929), he said, ‘I disagree with Nick Clegg’s decision about tuition fees. Having made a pledge, we should have stood by it. Principles, integrity and trustworthiness are compromised.’ If there is irony to be tapped, perhaps it is in that final word.

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