As this morning’s newslinks will testify, countless gallons of ink are still being expended on the Rochester vote and its implications. But rather than returning to that subject ourselves, how about we save a smaller story from drowning under the deluge? I was thinking this one (£) in the Sunday Times.
It concerns a study by Which? into university education. Apparently, about a fifth of the graduates they surveyed thought that their courses were bad value for money. But here’s the thing: those graduates did their graduating before 2012, which is also before the hike in tuition fees. They thought that the courses were bad value even before they started costing £9,000 a year. No wonder a third would now be reluctant to go to university, if they were in the same position again.
In a way, this represents a success of the Government’s tuition fees policy. I’ve written about this before. The New Labour governments talked about university education as though it was the be-all and end-all of life; the key to happiness, wealth and endless sexual conquest. Yet it didn’t turn out that way for many. If the subsequent hike in tuition fees has created a generation of more discerning students, keener to weigh up the costs and benefits of higher education, that is no bad thing.
Yet this Which? study also highlights the main issue with the Government’s policy. As the Times puts it, “A second survey of 4,500 undergraduates in their second or third year found widespread dissatisfaction too.” Which is to say, the universities marketplace is, like most marketplaces, bad in parts. But, unlike most marketplaces, the bad tends to cost the same as the good. The average cost for a university course is now pushing £8,703, just shy of the £9,000 maximum.
Value for money might improve as the new system settles in. Universities might have to lower their fees, or improve their services, as students wise up to what’s on offer. But, given what’s happened so far, and with universities still clamouring for more money, that could be a moot hope. More likely, politicians will have act in some of the ways that David Willetts was considering when he was universities minister. Some of these will be palatable to voters: providing more detailed information about different courses. Some of them less so: allowing universities to charge considerably more than £9,000.
All of which is to say: Universities funding is one of the great, simmering problems of this Parliament. For now, the papers are focused on the anger of UKIP voters. But the anger of young people could still leave some sort of mark on next year’s election.