I reckon this could be the issue that brings down the curtain on the SNP’s honeymoon period. They seem to have messed up a bit when it comes to universities, on two different issues.
Firstly, the universities say they are disappointed in the amount of funding they will get. The universities asked for £168 million extra and said that a minimum of £40 million extra was required for levels of funding to remain the same in real terms. What they actually got was £30 million — a real terms cut.
I have never been to any universities except for Edinburgh, so I couldn’t say how it compares to other institutions around the world. But I can’t help but wonder if the continued public funding of universities in this manner is unsustainable.
There is already a perception that Edinburgh University is increasing the number of international students it enrols. International students are the only students they can make money out of, so Scottish students will begin to be squeezed out.
It already disadvantages us in at least one high-profile way. The move to semesterisation has been seen as an attempt to attract international students who want to be back home for Christmas — but had a range of negative consequences for other students (additionally, that document doesn’t mention the fact that sometimes there can be just a few days between your last lecture and your first exam in December).
If it is true that Scottish universities are facing a real terms cut in funding, then this trend will continue. Then Scottish students will be worse off.
The other place where the SNP is feeling the heat is over their ditched plans to “dump student debt”. If you were a student, it was difficult to avoid the SNP’s ‘debt monster’ character. A number of blogs were even decorated with graphics of the creature. It was clearly a key policy in attracting student votes. So it’s hardly a surprise that a lot of students feel a bit miffed now.
I can hardly blame the SNP for not implementing this policy, which in my view (speaking as someone with £7,000 and counting to pay back to the Student Loans Company) was stark raving bonkers. They shouldn’t have promised it in the first place.
Both of these areas link into the fact that students have it far too easy. Proponents of free higher education miss the point of higher education. A degree is supposed to be a signal to employers that you are talented. For this signal to work, a degree has to be costly to attain.
After all, if it was easy to get a degree, any old fool could get one. This would lead to the ‘devaluation’ of degrees that people so often talk about. The point of making a degree costly is to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. If getting a degree pays off for someone who is not so smart, then degrees are no longer a useful indicator to employers and everyone is worse off as a result.
Of course, degrees are costly anyway. Not in a monetary sense, but in a time sense. Theoretically, examinations are (hopefully) hard enough to deter the not-so-smart from spending four years of their life studying, and the opportunity costs that entails (i.e. four years spent unable to work full time).
However, it doesn’t quite work like that. When people are growing up, nobody is told the truth about university. Parents always push you into going into university due to pride. They don’t want their several years and piles of money invested in a life to come to nothing. Schools are the same — if a lot of a school’s pupils go to university, it reflects well on a school’s reputation. Meanwhile, governments like to encourage people to go to university because it reflects well on their reputation and it helps keep a lid on unemployment figures.
For this reason, there are many students who are walking around like headless chickens, not knowing what to do next (I would include myself in this group). So many people are forced by societal pressure into going into university. A lot of people grow up knowing having been told by parents, schools and governments that they will go into university. These people simply don’t consider any other alternative. Then when they are about to graduate they are stumped.
The obsession with persuading young people to go to university has also led to the fetishisation of “student culture”. Thanks to this, those four years are not seen as a cost at all. They are seen as the best four years of your life. Four years spent getting drunk. The degree is seen as a nice bonus. Fair enough if people want to enjoy themselves — but this is at the expense of taxpayers’ money.
How do we know that degrees are not costly enough? Because some graduates — mostly male arts students (who? me?!) — end up earning less than people who do not go to university. (This is part of the reason why this issue angers me a bit. If I knew I had to pay, I would have been forced to think through my choices a bit more, and would probably have made a better decision.)
Before statists and socialists start moaning, let me point this out. If degrees are costly, this need not preclude poor people from getting one. For one thing, poor people are the very people who benefit the most from university education, so they have the biggest incentive to invest in it.
Also, I still think it would be unfair to make poor people pay upfront. I would not be averse to the introduction of university tuition fees as long as they did not involve up-front monetary costs. Instead, the money ought to be paid after graduation (or drop-out) in line with your ability to pay. This is how student loans work, so I don’t see how it couldn’t work with tuition fees.
Besides, any pretence that free higher education helps poor people would soon be shattered if you spent five minutes on a university campus. Students are overwhelmingly middle class anyway. Instead of helping the poor, public funding of university education hinders the poor. It takes working people’s tax money and ploughs it into the pockets of middle class Tarquin and his Classics degree.
This is not necessarily to say that I am completely opposed to any state involvement in higher education. I would understand if there were a clear need to provide an incentive for people to attend university (although surely the prospect of a highly-paid job ought to be enough incentive). But today, 52% of 18–30 year olds either have a higher education qualification or are currently studying for one. There is hardly a shortage of graduates, or people wanting to graduate.