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A degree of value?

student demo

Today the UK parliament votes to triple fees to study for a higher education degree. Given the composition of the House of Commons, the outcome of the vote is largely predictable. The effect on future generations is less clear.

When student tuition fees were introduced in 2006, Universities UK (UUK), the representative organisation for the UK’s universities, commissioned PwC to assess the economic value of higher education. They calculated that over a lifetime graduates would earn £160,000 more than holders of A-levels without degrees. This extra income was assumed by many to mitigate the £9000 debt (not including living expenses) that young adults have when they leave university.

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. If we assume students can live off £80-100/week during term time (to pay rent, bills, food, clothes, etc) and enjoy the cost-free luxury of parents at other times, it adds another £9000 over the course of a typical three year degree. Even before this proposed increase in fees, that would leave the average 21 year old graduate with an £18,000 millstone of debt around their neck. {i’, being wildly optimistic with these figures, too. In 2004, before fees were introduced at all, the NatWest bank estimated the average cost of a degree was £26,000]

Graduates will pay that off over time. There’s no question of it but it means years of payments and the virtual impossibility of saving for any other cause, the deposit for a house, for example.

Before the government of the 80s taught us that living beyond our means was a good thing, ordinary folk avoided debt like the plague. Many working class families simply could conceive of borrowing that amount of money for something apparently intangible. It’s an entirely different proposition if one has the Bank of Mum and Dad to pay off any outstanding loans.

Now the coalition government wants to triple those fees. £9000/ year for the best universities. £27,000 for the typical degree, not including living expenses. Put another way, that’s £100/ month for 22.5 years with the students living on free air. If you’re a parent and don’t want your child saddled with crippling debt, you’ll need to start saving before your child is born. If you want a degree yourself, you’ll be university-debt free by the time you are 44. 44.

How many poor kids or parents do you know able to make that sacrifice? Would you in these economically uncertain times?

There’s a misconception that only the student benefits from a degree, it’s the reason many resent paying their taxes to support the university system. But, it is a flawed argument. We all benefit from having the most educated society possible. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that everyone should have or needs a degree (although I passionately believe everyone should have the right to the best possible education to whatever level they choose). Every single one of our lives is improved by talented, educated people in all walks of life whether they are doctors, engineers, teachers, dare I say, even artists and musicians.

I oppose the rise in tuition fees because I believe they will stop poor but gifted young people from being stretched at university, exacerbating the already shameful inequalities on our education system. And I oppose the rise in fees because I believe our society will be impoverished economically, culturally and intellectually by fewer graduates.

The cost of education is high but the cost of ignorance is much much higher.

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