Thursday, February 10, 2011

University fees again

So the government's aim is that the new system for funding for degrees ought to be fairer. Nick Clegg defended the scheme before an audience of students. In effect, universities need to be given permission to charge the "full £9000", and this will be contingent upon them improving access for students with low income. He has also highlighted the fact that the country simply can't afford to pay tens of thousands of pounds for half its young people to go to university, particularly when a large number of the courses really add little in terms of economic value. No, university education isn't just about economic value: but neither is it about spending three years skipping lectures, buying cheap drink and ending up with a qualification that means nothing.

It looks as though the organisation tasked with ensuring improved access will be the Office for Fair Access (Offa). This has been their role hitherto - the introduction of higher student fees in 2006 had the potential for deterring good students (and indeed, I've worked with a variety of intelligent young people who chose not to go to university rather than accumulating debt). The BBC says:
Offa has the power to revoke the right to charge more and to impose a fine of up to £500,000 if the access agreement is broken.

But BBC education correspondent Gillian Hargreaves said Offa, which was set up in 2004, had never imposed any such sanctions thus far, which raised the question of whether it would be sufficiently robust with universities in the future.
So an organisation set up with the aim of ensuring access (by the previous Labour government) has actually, apparently, not done enough so far. Certainly looking on this page at the chart comparing access to university for state sector free school meal/state sector non-free school meal/private sector pupils highlights the fact that not only do far more private school pupils go to university, but the proportion of them that go to the 30 most selective universities is way higher.

To be fair, Offa doesn't represent a major burden on the taxpayer - they only seem to employ a handful of people. However, also to be fair, it seems unreasonable to assume that this government won't manage to improve access because the previous government set up a quango which didn't do much. There's also the possibility that, although there are inequities, the system is still "fair" - there is, after all, a difference between "fair" access and "equal" access. A large chunk of the issue is actually a problem lower down the educational system, in the inequalities in opportunities and achievement between state system and private system.

Once the can of worms is open, of course, it can't really be shut again - once we move down the line of students paying for their university education, we are unlikely to move back again. So if the system fails, that's that. However, given that the system we had was unsustainable, I'd rather see Vince Cable and Nick Clegg working on trying to make a new system feasible than George Osborne and David Cameron.