University funding and tuition fees are moving in the wrong direction. We need to change course. Back in September 2012, I joined the first cohort of UK students that were faced with £9,000 a year tuition fees.
This means that after a four year Edinburgh degree, throwing in nearly £4,000 of maintenance loans a year, many fellow students would be £50,000 in debt by the time we don our graduation gowns. At the time, many thought that the fee issue had reached its peak. That, as it turns out, was naïve.
When the first university tuition fees were introduced at £1,000 by the end of the 1990s, it was believed to be the thin end of a wedge that would lead to a funding system reliant on high levels of student loan debt. Tuition fees were trebled in 2004, then again in 2011 and now, following the Chancellor’s most recent Budget, are set to rise beyond £9,000. Maintenance grants, a lifeline for over half a million students in accessing higher education, are also set to be scrapped and replaced with loans. Students from poorer backgrounds will, therefore, leave university with higher debt than wealthier students. Many could be deterred from studying in the first place, their potential and opportunities capped as a result.
The UK is now heading towards a debt ridden model similar to the United States. Many aspects of American universities can be admired, but this is not one of them. Unrestrained by fee caps, elite Ivy League universities like Harvard or Princeton are charging over $50,000 a year in undergraduate tuition. By 2014 the total level of student loan debt in the US hit $1.2 trillion, higher than total US credit card debt.
On top of the risk of a bursting student loan bubble, akin to the housing market crash in 2007, is the strain on the economy. When graduates are spending money paying back their loans, they are not spending money in services and businesses. The UK is not there yet, but that is the direction we are headed. The Government, not universities are the chief culprits. If we want a world-class system, with all the societal and economic benefits it delivers, then we need to pay for it. The problem is that the Government is cutting vital investment, whilst allowing universities to cover the shortfall through student higher fees. This is particularly true for teaching grants in universities, which faced cuts of £150 million in the recent Budget.
Despite the Government’s rhetoric, tuition fees are not an economic necessity, but a political choice aimed at shifting the burden of university funding away from the taxpayer and towards individual students. Relying on student loans to fund universities may make a short-term boost to the Government’s balance sheet, as it appears as a public ‘asset’ rather than expenditure. In the long-term, however, it could well be detrimental to our society and economy.
So what can be done? First, we should work with the University to ensure that those students who will be worst affected by the scrapping of grants are provided generous bursaries that not only cover their living costs, but to seize all the extra-curricular opportunities available. Then we must play our part in shaping the debate about what a fairer and more sensible alternative could look like.
Governments across Europe have shown alternatives where public investment enables a fairer and more sustainable approach. In the US, there have also been calls from Tennessee’s Republican governor Bill Haslam to do the same. Right now, the UK is heading in the wrong direction, but it is not too late for us to turn around.