24 October 2006

To demonstrate, or not to demonstrate: that is the question


The National Union of Students (NUS) is organising the National Demo against the university top-up fees on Sunday 29 October 2006 in the streets of London. The York University Students' Union aims to contribute the largest amount of students from all the northern universities, as it managed in 2003. It may as well achieve that, for the "trip" only sells for 5 pounds. I must admit I find the price very tempting (not so much the 5 am departure time); I would like to experience the atmosphere of the march. But I cannot agree with the arguments the NUS is putting forward in the opposition to the tuition fees.

The proposition: the tuition fees will deter students from applying to university. The university applications declined by 3.5% this year. Wrong; the fees will not discourage those who are really determined to study. There is now a generously funded centralised grants system, complemented by the bursaries provided by the individual universities. No student should be worried about his/her financial situation any more than in the past. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the number of applications decreased as a direct consequence of the higher fees. Could not it be caused by the fact that the teenagers have finally realised that working hard for a degree does not pay off when everyone has got it? Is not there higher demand for plumbers than for historians? Also, has not the drop been partially caused by smaller number of students graduating from high school overall?

Therefore, those who would be deterred to go to university, knowing that they will only have to pay their tuition fees back once they earn over 15 000 pounds a year, needless to say without any interest, do lack basic assessment skills. If they do not value their education enough to be ready to invest in it a considerably small sum, why should the rest of the society do?

The NUS also warns that the 3000 yearly cap on the fees could be lifted, after the report on the higher education is published around 2009, 2010. I agree that the fees should not be much higher than now, as the students from poorer backgrounds would find it difficult to start their careers so heavily indebted. Therefore, the cap must be kept. Scrapping the cap completely would lead to the richer students going to universities which would charge more, and inescapably would then attract better lecturers and provide better learning facilities. As you can see, this would create a vicious circle of social discrimination, not dissimilar to the American practice. Low social mobility would entrench inequality in the society. That is by no means acceptable. However, it is not very likely that the cap will be lifted; in 2004, the current Higher Education Act only passed by 5 votes amidst a widespread opposition.

Recommendations for the UK government:
1) Enhance the system providing grants on living costs, and make it EU-wide (I will come back to this later, I promise). Do centralise the whole grants system, so there is no "bribing" through the amount of university-provided bursaries.
2) Do not lift the cap completely.
3) Do not introduce the up-front fees.
4) Do not provoke the anger of students by commments like students will "learn to love the fees" (Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education).
5) Do develop the policies aiming to help the young families with housing, childcare etc, as a part of long-term pro-population policy.

Recommendations for the NUS:
1) Do acknowledge that the poorest students get more money through grants system while at university than they have to pay back later. That is a significant improvement compared to the way the system worked in the past - there were no tuition fees, but also no grants.
2) Do not scare potential students off. In fact, it is the NUS campaign which has dissuaded many prospective students from going to university. It is the NUS that employs the politics of fear, telling the students that they will not be able to afford their studies.
3) Get rid of the "tax the rich" policy (although it has not been used in this campaign).
4) Do concentrate your campaign on the students' problems to finance maintenance. It is a much bigger item of student's budget, especially in London and the South East, than the tuition fees. And, unlike the fees, students need to cover the living costs during their actual studies.

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