So the government's Higher Education white paper promises a more student-focussed environment in which universities will be forced to compete for students in a market environment. As a general rule, I'd argue that the concept of market forces can usually be applied to any setting when one is talking about driving up standards and improving outcomes for the consumer (in this case, the student). The under-performance of many taxpayer-funded institutions serves to illustrate how protection from the consequences of failure invariably leads only to further institutional sluggishness.
However, for this plan to work, students have to be as free as the next consumer to take their business elsewhere in the middle of their course if they find themselves unhappy with current arrangements in terms of lectures, support and accomodation. Whether this paper empowers the paying customer in such a way is at best doubtful.
But does this not all rather miss the point? There are two contributing factors to the funding crisis which brought about this review of higher education and they are 1) the notion that the taxpayer should pay for degrees which ought to result in higher earnings potential for the student is deeply unpopular with those who never got the opportunity, and 2) as a country, our obsession with sending as many young people as we could onto degree courses rendered the existing model, then the one that replaced it, utterly unsustainable. In reality, there are simply far too many students between the ages of 18 and 21 in the Uk, and too many third rate universities offering nonsense degrees with them.
At some point in the last decade, it became conventional wisdom that attending university was a fundamental right for any 18 year old leaving college. Many of those who rioted against the cuts last year indeed behaved with the sense of grievance you would come to expect from a group who had lost a substantial slice of their personal liberty, and it is worth meeting this pernicious and misleading line of argument head on. A degree (and I speak as someone who does not have one) has to be an elite qualification, because by definition, the more participants you allow to win a prize, the more devalued that honour becomes. The current participation rate in Higher Education stands at around 36% amongst those aged between 18 and 21, and it is difficult to fathom how most of them can leave university with a skill applicable to the real world.
Many would be doing themselves more good in the long run by attending a vocational course or simply getting a job, but the current political fad of presenting the choice between a university education and eternal damnation has greatly diminished the standing of these other avenues. In reality, the value of the degree itself has fallen too thanks to the 'prizes for all' mentality of the previous government, but with them being so widely held, you can't really blame someone at 18 for swallowing the yarn spun to them that life will become incredibly difficult without one. Of course, I have known enough holders of HE honours stuck in dead-end employment to recognise that this is another of those lies that people are sometimes told to force them down the 'correct' path, but then 'the lies of post-adolescence' is probably a post of its own, best kept for another night.
We have somehow ended up with the worst of all worlds - degrees that have become worth increasingly less in the outside world, which is manifestly unfair on those who have them, and the absurd requirement to import skilled tradesmen from overseas due to the damage done to such career paths by the 'uni fad' in which mainstream politicians on all sides have become engrossed. With the state's contribution to the overall pot shrinking to such an extent that another look at funding became inevitable, has it occurred to any of them that a tightening of the academic criteria would both increase the relative size of the state's contribution, ensuring that those from deprived backgrounds could be looked after, while not saddling a great many other young people with mountains of debt in exchange for qualifications that do not equate to passports to the land of milk and honey, as they perhaps first imagined?
Some Libertarians believe in total freedom to learn - ie that any individual with the means to purchase a place on any educational or training course should be allowed to do so. Personally, I don't see how this ties in with the concept that our higher education establishments should be places of academic rigour. Yes, those participating should be required to at least contribute a majority stake of the costs of doing so as long as their means do not prohibit it. However, those who display high levels aptitude and application ought not be deterred from maximising their potential because of their background, or idle parents who may spend student loans on themselves.
Perhaps some form of bursary to be repaid once the individual is earning, either through private philanthropy or out of a reduced taxpayer contribution, would be both a just outcome and in all likelihood a sensible investment? Like most, I see the massive benefits to society of our brightest and most able furthering their education, regardless of their background or economic circumstances. What strikes me as utterly pointless is the herd of average achievers following the same path.
Only by restoring higher education as the preserve of the academic elite will we return real value and merit to degrees, and by doing so, we can rid ourselves of the crazed ideas that 1) furthering your education regardless of academic ability is a fundamental right and 2) that not having a string of initials next to your name amounts to some kind of occupational death sentence. Then we can get to work on returning vocational training and the careers that come with them to the standing that they deserve in our society, hopefully negating the requirement to import such professionals from Eastern Europe in particular. For our economy and society to function as it should, both academic and vocational aptitude need to be encouraged, rewarded, recognised and respected.
As with many of New Labour's brainwaves, the widening of participation in higher education was in all likelihood the product of healthy and altruistic intentions. However, they again forgot that the law of unintended consequences invariably brings about unwanted and unpleasant results. In this case they have been widespread and damaging on many different sides - a funding crisis in an era where HE was widely seen as an entitlement, and the simultaneous devaluation of both the degree itself and the alternative routes that might face someone at eighteen. There is nothing 'nice' about leading someone into heavy debt for the sake of qualifications that mean increasingly little once more and more people possess them. It's time someone in government triggered an end to the circus by standing up and admitting that the Uk just has too many students.