As a University Senior Lecturer and having been an Admissions Tutor, I am very aware not only of the pressures faced by our young people trying to get into university, but also of the difficulties faced by universities and colleges trying to match the best students to the limited number of places on their courses.
The challenges facing the sector are hugely complex, which is why the debate that rages across the UK about its future desperately needs a dose of realism. We need to make sure that our Higher Education sector across the whole UK remains at the forefront of global excellence.
Equally, we need to ensure that the prospects are bright for both students and staff in our institutions. It is vital that any person, young or old, who has the potential and ability to go to university should be able and encouraged to do so with no barriers. This should be done on merit and potential and not on the basis of ability to pay.
The decision to increase tuition fees in England has been painful but, unfortunately, necessary. Before Labour opponents jump in too quickly, it is important to point out that it was the Labour Party that first introduced tuition fees and instituted the Browne Review.
The situation north of the border in Scotland is equally complex and it has been left to the Conservatives, alone amongst the Scottish parties, to bravely and realistically face up to the challenge of how to bridge the gap in funding that will now exist between Scotland and England. University Principals are crying out for a realistic solution to this and are making it painfully obvious that the policies pursued variously by the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems are unsustainable and will leave institutions in Scotland at a real disadvantage.
The Scottish Conservatives fought the recent Scottish Parliament election with a policy stating that the best and fairest solution is to have some form of graduate contribution to funding. It seemed to me, as someone who has been involved in Higher Education for the last fifteen years, that this was just plain “common sense.” There is no other option.
And now in the wake of that election, we are faced with an SNP Government which has said that there will be no (Scottish) student contribution up front or even as a graduate. One possible idea they are pursuing is to charge students from elsewhere in the UK up front fees to try and bridge the gap in funding. That seems incredibly unfair and short-sighted and already University Principals in Scotland are wanting to know from the SNP how much they can charge these students.
This would further exacerbate the unfairness of a system whereby students from England are already charged around £1,800 per year (£2,800 for medicine) whereas students from outside the UK but within the EU are charged nothing. None of this strikes me as fair or indeed sensible. The reality of the economic situation in Higher Education is that some form of graduate contribution once a threshold salary is reached is the progressive way forward. Furthermore, the majority of Scots agree that this is the most sensible way forward and believe that students should contribute in some way towards their tuition.
As a candidate at the general election last year, I was roundly condemned in the press by the local Student Association president for not signing the infamous NUS pledge not to support an increase in tuition fees in England. We have all seen what difficulties that pledge has caused our Coalition partners. As someone in the system wanting to champion Higher Education, I realised that this pledge wasn’t realistic and I wasn’t going to sign something just to try and get elected. I believe passionately in the value of a university education and have supported this belief through my career to date. So, when I was condemned by the students’ association I did feel somewhat disappointed.
One of the legacies that Labour left was the impact of the arbitrary target that 50% of young people should go to university. Yes, this was probably meant well but I don’t think it was particularly helpful to young people or indeed the University sector. There is no dishonour in not going to university and young people should be encouraged to follow the path that suits them best, be that vocational training, university or something completely different.
A couple of letters next to your name are not necessarily the be-all-and-end-all and in some cases may not help particularly with securing the right job. We need to make this clear and provide positive support and encouragement for alternative routes post-school. Every person has their individual talents and I don’t think it right or sensible for people to be pushed down certain paths just because of some centrally-derived aspirational target.
What is pivotal in all the debate around Higher Education funding is that sufficient resources and expertise are put in place to make sure that access to university is fair and equal and that there are no financial barriers. Widening Participation schemes need to enhanced and rolled out across the country and hardship bursaries must be the norm and become widely available.
These are difficult decisions, but for the sake of our young people and for the future sustainability of the Higher Education sector, we need to confront the issues now.