All quiet on the education front?
With the fight to defend the NHS and other health and social services taking precedence for many anti-cuts groups, it would be easy to think that the Higher Education struggle can be laid to rest. Nothing could be further from the truth. So many Universities have set fees at £9000 that the government will struggle to find the money to loan to students, even though the debt is technically “off-sheet” and therefore doesn’t count towards the deficit. This crisis is rather ironic, as the government has sought to reduce its role in Higher Education funding on the pretext of a national debt crisis.
What happens next? The government originally said it would see what the market does this year and then issue a White Paper over the summer with proposals for how to make the system work in reality. To this end, Universities Minister David Willetts made proposals that are now being referred to as the “Willetts Plan”. Put simply, without a place at their preferred University could opt to pay the International fees and bypass the quota, relying on parental support, commercial loans or sponsorship from a charitable trust or commercial company.
The change would be devastating. Far from making it fairer for students, it would allow the richest families to bypass the normal admissions process. Instead of taking the cream of British A level students, Oxbridge, Durham and even York would have a ready supply of lucrative, but not necessarily academically capable students, who’s parents would essentially be paying for Firsts (and potentially suing if they don’t receive them). In group study projects, bright students from poor backgrounds would find themselves propping up students who scraped entry but who received support.
The ideas have been kicked into long grass for now, but if, as many suspect, the government announces fewer funded places year on year, the unthinkable will once more become necessity. There is a danger that commercially-funded students will drive the move away from study-to-better-humanity and towards study-to-better-exploit, and that leading Universities will decide on privatisation, and refuse to serve the public good or accept more than a tokenistic handful of disadvantaged students. Next academic year there will be just as much reason to fight for Higher Education as there was in 2010.
This article was written for the Summer 2011 mid-term edition of “The Activist” student newsletter.