A right or a privilege? – maximising the value offered by the British higher education system.

So, I’ve been thinking for a while about writing something online. But the reality of it all is that my day to day life would probably bore the hell out of anyone who read anything about it, and I wouldn’t really consider myself enough of an expert in any particular field to blog about it at length. On this basis, I have decided that I will vary the subject and frequency of my output, and simply rant on the issue currently occupying my thoughts.

What subject have I chosen to ponder here? Well, I would consider myself relatively politically engaged, and having just re-entered full time study, it would seem appropriate that I tackle the subject of tuition fees.

Firstly, all cards on the table, I am a card-carrying Liberal Democrat and have voted that way as long as I have been able, I remain a supporter of the party within the coalition government, and do not feel the betrayal which many students have been bleating about since the election. As well as this, my subject area and passionate interest is physics.

I sit here watching the countries supposed academic elite rioting (and there is no sense tiptoeing around the word) at Millbank on BBC News and despair that some elements of this group genuinely feel that our situation is one which merits such direct action.

Do I believe in free university education?

Yes.

Do I believe in free university education in whatever subject for anyone who wants it?

No.

In the academic year 2006/7 there were 31375 qualifications obtained at english HEIs in Engineering and Technology, compared to 52050 in Social Studies (http://bit.ly/9l9AYZ ). How many of these social studies degrees benefit society as a whole? To be clear, I am not suggesting that these graduates do not help society, merely that their degrees are in many cases irrelevant to the careers they then pursue.

Education is primarily a tool for social advance. I am certainly not arguing that we ought to discontinue study in the arts, but merely that it might be scaled down to a level where the graduates produced were only the very best, not only could the UK improve its’ academic reputation globally, but also afford to directly fund the study of those students who will directly add value to the economy.

The UK is a skills economy, and has been for years, but the simple fact is that not everyone is capable of reaching a level where they can contribute economically through that route, and even those who do, may be able to contribute more efficiently through a real manufacturing sector.

It is obvious the United Kingdom cannot compete globally in primary manufacturing, and so it is important that secondary manufacturing is developed by effective skills based training. This is not the place of universities, but should be free and available to all in the form of apprenticeships. Those who are capable of contributing economically via the acquisition of degree-level knowledge must be encouraged to do so, and thus should not have to bear additional financial burden for their education. A failure to ensure the free access of these students to as advanced a level of education as is advantageous to the economy as a whole would be a travesty in terms of its long term implications for the country as a whole.

Will this approach lead to a nation of illiterate number-crunching automatons? I doubt it. Ask yourself this, how many poorly read STEM graduates do you know? As opposed to how many innumerate “artists”?

Once again, this is not an article claiming that the arts have no worth. Merely that the artistic development of the individual ought to be the responsibility of the individual, save where it directly adds value to the economy. Art is, after all, subjective.

In short, and without doing the sums, this is a proposition that a University education ought to be freely available where it will directly add value to the economy. If this is in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, so be it (conversely, if we determine that there is a global market for 100,000 more history graduates per year then we can go with that, but frankly I think it unlikely). Let economic demand, rather than applicant demand, determine the availability of places, but do not penalise those who take up those places for their ambition.

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