Bargain basement degree culture

This is not intended to be a political commentary. I fully understand that funding for science, as for other research and study, has to come from somewhere. However I was intrigued (and a little irritated) by this BBC news story about the Russell Group’s second submission to the currently ongoing Browne review of Higher Education funding. It seemed to suggest that the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the UK’s top universities, wants to introduce variable fees for students, to be repaid after their course has finished.

On the Russell Group website you can read what they actually submitted to the Browne review. For me, it makes frightening reading.

The Russell Group submission states that “The  inequity  of  a  universal  subsidy.   A  higher  education  system  which is  funded purely through the public purse requires all taxpayers to fund a share in the costs of higher education regardless of whether they or their families receive a direct share of the  benefits.  A  significant majority  of  people  who  currently  benefit  continue  to  be those  from  higher  socio-economic  groups. Better-off  families  therefore  reap  the majority of the benefit from a publicly funded system, without financing the majority of its costs, and therefore the system is regressive.

Hmm. Are they suggesting that asking all tax-payers to contribute to the funding would be wrong? Seems that way to me. They also seem to be saying that only the student who attends university and their direct family benefit from that university education.  Surely, as the people who administrate the university research and teaching, they ought to realise that there are multiple benefits to giving any one student a university education.

Industry benefits because they have bright and trained potential employees, so they have to spend less money on recruitment and training. Big industry must be rubbing its hands in glee over this one. But they are far from the only beneficiaries. Everyone (and yes I mean everyone, all taxpayers, all non-taxpayers, everyone in the country, indeed, everyone in the world to some extent or other) is a winner. More and better education enables more research to be done, more developments to be made, and even more lives to be saved through science. I am not arguing here that all new developments are good (that is an entirely different discussion), but without university graduates you would have no doctors, teachers, rocket scientists, lawyers, no new buildings designed, etc. It is not just the family of a particular graduate that has an interest on their education.

Oh but wait a minute. When I have been talking about graduates, I’ve been thinking primarily about science and engineering graduates, who do all the wonderful and advantageous research and make all the amazing products I referred to. I do respect the right of a student to choose to study for any degree they want to. But there are certainly some degrees that pay back more to society in general than others.

So to their conclusion: “The ability to vary prices  from  institution  to institution, and from subject  to subject,  is  therefore a necessary solution to the problem of appropriately funding very different higher education provision.

Perhaps this is true after all then. Certainly, if your degree course is going to be particularly favourable for society, then it seems fair that you be charged less for the study of it. And there is indeed a section in the submission which describes how it could be possible to pass on less of the costs to the students, as a percentage of total costs for running the course, in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths). But isn’t that what already happens now?

This  will  create  a  fairer  system  in  which  the  graduates  who secure  the greatest benefits will make  the greatest contribution“. This sounds fair at first reading. But how do you define a benefit? Benefits are not just financial, they can include enjoyment, freeedom, and facilities. And, more importantly,  it would imply that those who gain less benefit from their degree should pay less towards it. Great – now the UK taxpayer will be funding a generation of students in arts and wooly social sciences, where job prospects are fewer. It is not right to make the most useful courses the more expensive ones to study and it could encourage students to pick the bargain-basement cheaper courses which are not going to be of benefit to them or anyone else in the long run. That’s certainly the message it would send out. Have they thought this through?

The submission then goes on to discuss the fact that graduates from Russell Group universities tend to earn more after their graduation than those from other universities, thus could more easily make up the difference post-graduation. In theory this is true. However it forgets that, by and large, if they are bright enough to get into a top university as opposed to a lower-ranked one, most students will go for the former option. Sensible.  Now they are to be charged more because they are more intelligent, or had better exam grades than their fellow students. This scheme would effectively punish high-achievers. Or turn the top universities into enclaves for the rich, as they used to be a few hundred years ago. It could also lead to a larger proportion of Russell Group graduates going into highly paid  jobs rather than taking on lower paid but more societally beneficial jobs such as teachers or university researchers/lecturers, in order that they can more easily pay back their great debts. This is a retrograde step. Admission to the best universities, with the best facilities, should be determined by the potential of each candidate to achieve, not by how much they will earn.

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