Tuition fees: Why they should be different for each of us

Image credit: JamKaftan

76% of universities are charging all students the full £9,250 tuition fee per year as of 2015-16.  The quality of education and degree path rarely determine this sum.  It has become impossible to reconcile charging all students the same with the variety in educational contact and employment prospects a university degree offers.  If fees are here to stay, a tiered system which considers the likelihood of a student paying off the debt must be on the table.

University numbers are ballooning with a record 1.9 million places offered last year.  We are prone to forgetting the impact on this figure of the 30+ ‘ex-polytechnic universities’.   A polytechnic used to offer applied education for a professional career.  In 1992, ‘academic’ departments were opened, and likewise, institutions already deemed ‘universities’ began to develop professional undergraduate courses.  Bringing polytechnic style courses ‘up’ to the prestige of universities was hugely positive, but brashly levelling all fees has now proved disastrous.

This isn’t to say that polytechnic-style courses don’t belong at university nor that they are a less useful or impressive standard of education.  We need only look at the higher education structure in Germany to appreciate the value of tertiary vocational education, but also the value in noting that it is different.  It is universities offering both in unequal measure for the same price that is creating a ‘pressure cooker’ as coined by The Times’ Iain Martin.  It is perhaps not as regressive as we think to angle for an American-style system, where student debt is proportional to what and where you study and therefore what you are likely to earn.  American student debt is also less on average.  Few Americans take a 3 year course to acquire relatively low-paying vocational skills as we do in the UK, but many are subsidised to follow an educational path they cannot afford. 

Tuition fees were lobbied because universities were funded by everyone’s taxes, but they served only a very small number of tax payers.  This very small number has grown, and at a very fleeting glance this could have worked, but better never means better for everyone.  Students are now drowning beneath the mounting tide of debt, 25% of which issued after 2012 will still be paid off by the government.  Some graduates will barely pay off their interest over a career. 

Vocational education, whether it is offered at ‘university’ or not, is different to an academic education; treating it the same is crippling to young people starting out.  At one end of universities, courses are almost all academically orientated, and at the other, courses are almost all vocational.  The institutions and courses are very different but often cost the same.  We don’t talk much about the possibility of categorizing tuition fees but it could be a vast improvement on our current predicament.

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