Future Views Magazine
University Fees and Debt
Who is the main beneficiary of university education, the student, the employer or the nation?
Units of measurement and the end of space.
Six Point Pollution Solution
Part One: "Flowers In The City"
brighten our cities with many tiny garden?
Six Point Pollution Solution
Part Two: "The Transformation of Waste"
Instead of landfill, waste could be a valuable resource.
Hidden blueprints for the new cities of the sea.
Arabian Mights & Maybes
Plans for the future carefully copied by Brenda.
Arabian Might May Raise The Sea
Desalinated reverse rivers powered by nature
The Unpublished Manuscript
A hint as to what may lie in the future.
A curious twist to the laws of perception.
The Slop House
an alternative to the traditional public house
You Are A Winner
A willing victim is the best victim.
Maybe our prisons are not as wonderful as all that.
The Bright New Pants Manifesto
The hilarious solution to invevitable change
A raging argument is discovered
University Fees and Student Debt
Do those who pay for higher education have the same consumer rights as people who buy holidays?
Euan and I were staking out his uncle's mansion noting the number plates of the cars that came and went - both of them, as it transpired. Having overheard his uncle and others
discussing a scheme to exterminate most of the human race we needed to establish whether the threat was real, and whether they might succeed.
I turned off the radio in Sir Keith's 1965 Rover and slid down in my seat. It was a mild, sunny afternoon, insects buzzing, birds singing and all that sort of thing. The News had reported how students would not only have to pay for their higher education but could be slammed for extra 'Top Up' fees just when they were drowning deepest in debt.
The newspaper on my lap echoed the bulletin.
"Whadya think, Euan," I said, "should students pay or should the tax payer pay?"
"Depends," said Euan, who usually has an opinion on just about everything, "who is buying what, what is the nature of the transaction?"
"It used to be that universities were private institutions where only the rich could be educated," I said, "if we go back to that, the government could withdraw all support from higher education and let the entire system sink or swim on its merits."
"True," said Euan, "but we would then see an immediate and dramatic drop in student numbers as well as a reduction in vital skills among our workforce."
"A lot of graduates go into work unrelated to their field of study and do not use the qualifications they gained ever again throughout their lives."
"Also true," said Euan, "and many millionaires left school at the earliest opportunity with nothing but guts and an idea and never looked back!"
"Abolish support then?"
"No," said Euan, emphatically, "we can't do that."
"Can't?" I challenged, "that's pretty strong. Why not?"
"Too abrupt a change for one thing."
"Pah!" I interrupted, not because I supported the abolition of state funding, merely as a challenge to his reasoning. "Companies lay off workers and close entire factories overnight," I continued, "why can't governments do the same? They're quick enough to drop bombs, after all."
"Anyway, as I was saying," pronounced Euan unequivocally, "apart from change management and all that, if students purchase their own higher education the entire concept shifts."
"You-wot?" I retorted.
"The nature of what is taking place changes. As a customer, students will have to be protected by consumer rights legislation same as everyone else."
"Say you bought a two-month adventure holiday and paid six thousand pounds up front, if you were forced to return home because of something going wrong, you could expect to be refunded the difference. You could demand that you be refunded for that part of the holiday you never had."
"Might be contested in court," I said.
"Yes of course, but the principle is there" said Euan.
"So?" I asked.
"What are you paying for when you buy an education?"
"The education, of course," I said.
"Really? A kind of grand jamboree, a whizz-bang holiday camp with knobs on?" Euan looked at me with that look in his eye which said, 'there's something you haven't thought of.'
He continued, "couldn't it be argued that the student is buying the outcome: a better lifestyle, a profession, a career?"
I looked out the window, a butterfly settled on a flower.
"Your point being?" I asked, turning back.
"If a student has amassed a horrendous burden of debt in the purchase of a career, and that career does not materialise, who is liable?" Euan paused.
"The student of course," I replied.
"Really? Are you telling me that a teenager is to be expected to be able to make a purchase decision involving ten or twenty thousand pounds of debt for a product that has no resale value, no guarantee and has a high probability of failure?" Euan was gearing up. "Politicians who spend as much time counting and managing their personal fortunes as they do running the country have decided, as a result of their own incompetence and mismanagement of the economy, to dump the onus on the student without any consideration for the welfare of the individuals who have to suffer the consequences."
"That's a bit below the belt, that, steady on," I protested, "you're just slanging politicians for the hell of it."
"Overstatement maybe but the point is, young people are told - sold - that university is the thing to go for. They place their trust in the system, in the advice of their elders. It is perfectly reasonable for them to assume that everything will work out fine: 'because that's the way everybody does it.' Many of them get stung."
I stayed quiet, waiting for him to continue.
A Jaguar rolled quietly up and turned into the drive. We quickly jotted down its number and made a note of the occupants, what we could see of them. Two men and a woman, it seemed.
"Recognise them?" I asked.
"Nope," said Euan.
He put his notepad on the dashboard and continued.
"It's all very well and good if you're the star student, successfully balancing your popularity with your dedication, picking up top marks, cruising out with a fine portfolio, first degree honours and letters of commendation, oh yes, there's every chance you'll walk into a high paid job with brilliant prospects and all your debts will be cleared within a decade and a half but what if it goes pear-shaped? What then?"
"You only repay your loan if your income can afford it," I replied.
"Yes, maybe, but it sits there, lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce the moment your income takes a turn for the better - and our higher education system takes no account of this aspect: it refuses to acknowledge that for many students, university or college is a harrowing and traumatic experience which leaves students worse off than had they never attended in the first place."
"Come on, you expect me to believe that?" I protested, "students have never had it so good! They have campuses, counselling, sports clubs, societies, associations, one-to-one tutorials - what more do they want?"
"Have you ever met students who dropped out mid way? They have nothing, they have worse than nothing. They have the bill for one or two years higher education but nothing useful to show for it. Injury added to insult, they are demoralised, failures in their own eyes and in the eyes of their family and peers. They harbour a deep sense of disgrace which they try to deny or which they boldly shrug off. And they have a debt equivalent to a mortgage, a super tax snapping at their heels which will never go away for as long as they live. Would you buy that? Nice holiday, eh? Nice career."
Euan's look was so stern he was practically drilling holes in me.
"Well," I tried to protest, "they could change courses, find something more suitable, they could make an effort, see the career guidance counsellor, they could - "
Euan rolled his head and made a rather loud and somewhat rude kind of noise.
"'Could'!" he exclaimed, "oh yes, they 'could' do this, that or the other but the point is, there are thousands who haven't and didn't, for whatever reason. How dare you judge them, how dare you condemn them? That's exactly what they are saying to themselves, don't you see? For the rest of their lives they can berate themselves with what they could or should have done. The point is, if universities are selling an extremely expensive product to young people, many of them under twenty one, it is the university and their governors and sponsors who have to assess all the possible outcomes and take account of them."
"Sue the professor if his lectures are boring?" I quipped.
"Exactly. Now you're getting my drift."
"Those who emerge without a glowing qualification have in effect bought themselves a millstone to drag through life evermore," I said.
"Quite." Euan exhaled loudly, relieved he was getting through.
It was his turn to gaze out the window. A bright flower waved gently in the slight breeze, starkly contrasted against the darkness of the wood. There were no deer or rabbits, just a few birds and insects.
"There's more to it than that though," he said after what seemed a long time. "We've smashed up our apprenticeships, we smashed up our guilds, we've smashed up our unions and now we're doing the same to higher education. University is not a substitute for technical college or in-house training, it is something different. University education used to be as much about personal development as the acquisition of a skill or qualification. We're muddling up vocational training with - what's it called - holistic or whatever, personality developing education."
"Like the graduate with a degree in Latin and medieval sword-making who goes on to present television programmes?" I offered.
"Precisely; or a manager, or an editor or journalist or all kinds of things where the degree gets the job even though it is irrelevant to the skills required," said Euan.
"Re-training, in-house, after getting the job."
"Learn as you go; four years in university simply to get the interview." Euan smiled wryly.
"And future promotions," I added.
"But who is the chief beneficiary?" Euan continued, "the employer or the graduate? Where would engineering be without graduates?" Euan paused, "companies would have to spend thousands training school leavers up to the level of knowledge they need. Day release is too slow, they would need intensive, salaried, full time education - and do you think they would hoof that without demanding tax breaks or even direct subsidies? Think about it. And what do we hear today? The country's awash with van drivers and window cleaners but cutting edge projects have to relocate to Korea because they can't find two semi-conductor graduates to rub together."
"Better planning?" I said, "company sponsored places, like in the fifties?"
"They scrapped that because it was messy. Besides, the companies recoup their costs from the treasury anyway so why bother? It's cheaper and more efficient to go direct, cut out the extra corridors of red tape and administration."
"Not to mention subtly inflated costs," I remarked.
We looked at each other, our minds buzzing.
Euan seized his notebook, a Volvo had just emerged from the drive, one driver, one passenger and one dog. He scribbled down some notes and checked his watch.
I made notes of my own, backup, or something.
"How about universities 'sell' their graduates to companies?" I said.
"Or graduates have a guaranteed minimum wage, regardless of employment, which automatically takes them into a tax bracket high enough to repay their costs?" Euan said.
"Unitise higher education giving every student a little piece of qualification every six weeks or so, add them together to make a bigger qualification?" I said, laughing. We hooted with derision at the idea.
"Pay-As-U-Go Honours degrees," said Euan, still giggling.
"I've got three-tenths of a degree," I quipped, "can I have a job please?"
"Yes, certainly, you can become three tenths of a doctor!" Euan laughed.
It was a moment or two before we calmed down.
"What, then, is the solution?" I asked.
"Quite frankly I haven't got a clue," said Euan, "I don't really know enough about the problem. For a start, we could look at - "
"Examine?" I interrupted, we chuckled.
Euan continued, "we could look at systems that do or did work and find out why. Higher education seemed to work very well in the early to mid seventies, before the North Sea Oil boom, what's changed since then?"
I shook my head, recalling the protests and vitriol of the day, but said nothing.
"Thatcherism?" I said.
"American influence?" said Euan.
"Off shore-ism," said I.
Euan cocked an eyebrow, "meaning?" he asked.
"Companies that are wholly based in the UK, owned by UK residents, setting themselves up as off-shore companies that pay no UK tax."
"Is it as big a problem as that?"
"I've no idea actually," I said, "but in the eighties accountants had a craze for it, before they had their homes repossessed and moved into the more lucrative business of bankruptcy and insolvency."
"Sounds ghastly," said Euan.
"There's something we don't know - guess where all our oil revenues went?"
"Not into higher education, that's for sure," said Euan.
"Mass redundancy, legal fees, litigation and the vast new industry of liquidation, debt write off and all that."
"Great investment for the future!" Euan exclaimed and we both laughed.
"Wonderful foresight: hoard wealth, sell it as loans, drive half the country into irredeemable debt and blow our gains writing off defaulters," I said.
"Not to mention maintaining high unemployment to control inflation," Euan added.
"And the unions," I said.
"Who's running this show?" Euan hooted.
We were both mirthful.
"Lack of good graduates, that's the problem," Euan said.
"Precisely. Back where we started."
"Who benefits from higher education, the individual or the nation?" Euan asked.
"The nation," I said.
"The trouble is, the government wants the high fliers, the achievers and wealth builders - "
"Wants their tax," I interjected.
"- but wants to dump any losses on the individual," said Euan.
"Next thing you know they're spending millions on special committees to investigate the causes of run-away suicide levels."
"Surprise sur-bloody-prise," I said bitterly.
"Solution, then, is to dump the entire cost in the lap of the treasury and tell them to shut up and manage their affairs better," concluded Euan.
"Whew," I said, "they won't like that!"
"In the long run," Euan continued, "with suitable inspections and management procedures in place, by far the cheapest and most cost-effective funding of higher education is through the public purse. Perhaps we need better guidance for students? Do you know how hard it is, for example, for mature students? We're very good at turning away from failures, or 'committee-ising' the problem when it's out of hand but seldom do we really tackle the issues at the start and come up with effective solutions." Euan was growing irate again.
"What about a broader approach, elevate vocational establishments to the same status as universities but with a purely practical curriculum?" I said.
"Now we're treading the dangerous grounds of educational theory. We could bang on all night and never achieve support or agreement from anyone."
We sat in silence.
Euan spoke softly, "fifty thousand pounds in debt to drive a taxi," he clicked his tongue.
After a pause he spoke again. "I know someone who starts work at eight in the morning, finishes at ten pm, is classed as ‘unskilled’, gets the minimum wage and yet is better off than in his previous job".
I looked at him with a frown, "what’s your point?" I asked.
"He did a one year certificate in human resources, a one year diploma, a higher national diploma, a three year degree and year and a half masters degree. At the end of it he took his place at a government desk beside clerks who had joined the civil service straight from school." Euan had a serious look. "Seven years higher education, funded by his family, and his best job is minimum wage. Tens of thousands of pounds investment down the swanny."
I nodded, there wasn’t much I could add.
I looked at my watch, Euan looked at the clock on the dash.
"Time to go, I reckon," said Euan.
"May as well," I agreed.
Euan turned the key, the old Rover purred into life with only the hint of a cough.
"Trouble is," I said as we accelerated smoothly past the driveway, "we can't."
"Dump the entire cost into the lap of the treasury," I said.
"Why not?" asked Euan.
"Have you forgotten?" I looked at him, "they sold the family silver!"
Euan laughed and shook his head.
We drove back to town.