Perspective: Underfunding High Aspirations; Having Just Completed Nearly a Decade in Higher Education, Ross Kennedy Worries for the Future of Academia

The Birmingham Post (England), January 13, 2005 | Go to article overview

Perspective: Underfunding High Aspirations; Having Just Completed Nearly a Decade in Higher Education, Ross Kennedy Worries for the Future of Academia


Byline: Ross Kennedy

Thus Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century man of letters, on knowledge: 'All knowledge is of itself of some value'.

And again: 'Other things may be seized by might, or purchased with money, but knowledge is to be gained only by study'.

Johnson was right, but only up to a point. Knowledge does have a price, and that price can currently be measured in student debt.

The rising costs of studenthood, the increasing number of students, and the Government's plan to recruit more of them should be of concern not just to those currently attending university and those thinking of doing so in the future, but also to their teachers and their potential employers.

At present, the average UK student leaves university owing around pounds 12,000, a figure that combines the costs of tuition and maintenance.

Many students owe much more, and most can expect to be saddled with debt until well into their careers.

Tuition fees are a major bone of contention. The argument runs that, since graduates benefit from a wider choice of jobs and higher average salaries, they should contribute financially to the system that propels them to this enviable position. A fair proposition, one might think.

But this is not quite the full picture. The drive to get more people into higher education is producing a glut of graduates, devaluing the degree as a measure of achievement and ability.

Once the first step on the road to well paid employment, a university education no longer guarantees an interview, let alone a job.

What's more, the decision to let universities charge variable tuition fees of up to pounds 3,000 from 2006 is certain to exacerbate the financial implications of further study for many future undergraduates.

The average graduate's debt will rise sharply, and prospective students will be forced to choose their course based on its cost.

The professed advantage of variable tuition fees is that they will create a market in higher education, which, in turn, will promote inclusivity.

Competing for applications, universities will reduce their fees and more students from lower income backgrounds will be enabled to attend.

In reality, though, with top universities set to charge top fees, cheaper courses will inevitably come to be seen as second rate. Students will be placed at a disadvantage in terms of job choice before they even matriculate.

And don't forget the expense of maintenance. Many will find the potential cost of supporting themselves throughout three years of full-time study to be a complete disincentive against attending university.

Unquestionably, universities need more money. Higher education in the UK is chronically underfunded and, with institutions in other countries, especially America, offering incomparable salaries for the best academics, a decline in standards is inevitable unless something changes.

Tuition fees, we are therefore to believe, will safeguard the standards of our universities.

There is, however, a significant catch.

In order to charge the maximum tuition fee of pounds 3,000 - which many claim is not enough to plug the current deficit anyway - universities will have to convincean 'access regulator' that they are successfully recruiting students from the most disadvantaged social groups. …

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