Friday, December 24, 2010

"you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

5 Left-field Arguments Against Tuition Fees.

The five arguments against tuition fees given here are not intended to provide a comprehensive summary of the multitude of such arguments within the discourse. There are many more convincing and relevant arguments out there – most of us have probably come into contact with them many times over the last few weeks, and have already formed our own stance on them. The intention of these 5 arguments is not to dismiss the importance of other well-trodden paths, but rather to put forward 5 arguments of varying strength that are not usually discussed within the tuition fee debate, and to provide some counterarguments to those whose conceptualisation of the HE system considers the degree a product.

1)A BA/Sc degree alone is worth little in the job market. How can a student in so much debt afford to fund the 'corollaries' necessary to get that graduate job?

To be appointed to a 'graduate' post in fields like law, media, consultancy, journalism, financial services, etc, etc, etc then you are pretty much expected to have significant work experience on your CV, or to do an unpaid internship, usually based in London. Jobs in such fields, coveted and rare as they are, will go to those who have been able to gain this valuable work experience – sometimes due to 'connections' within the industry. The herd is thinned further by such options only really open to those who can afford to live and work in London for 3 months, UNPAID.

-With £20k plus of debt, that isn't happening any time soon.

-If we consider degrees to be a 'product' that we are investing in, as the establishment is so eagerly encouraging us to do, why would we pay for a product that is not fit-for-purpose?

2)We are told to view our expensive degrees as an investment, as they will help us to net that elusive job – and this justifies the cost. Yet this investment appears to be faulty.

Rapid expansion of student numbers coupled with the commodification of the 2:1 have resulted in a job market oversaturated with the afore mentioned degree classifications. They are rapidly becoming worthless. In order to make their CV stand out from the crowd, students need all sorts of fireworks and cartwheels – it's the voluntary work, work experience, internships and extra curricular activities which will get you the job. Try building an impressive CV to rival that of other candidates when you have to work throughout the academic year and all summer to fund yourself. (many people work for money, not experience)

-Why pay so much money for something that is 'worth' so little to you (in ££££s at any rate, which is how we are being told to evaluate these things)?

3) The commodification of the 2:1 will result in a shift in attitudes towards MA/Sc's, which will devalue the 2:1 further in the job market and result in further inequality of opportunity for those who can afford to pay for an MA/Sc to improve their job prospects, and those who can't.

Following on from the previous argument, over the next few years, jobs that used to require a BA/Sc as standard will, in an effort to sift through the reams of CVs that land on their desks, search desperately for qualities that put some candidates head and shoulders above the others. Inevitably, often those with a MA/Sc will emerge as the stronger applicants. This is a dangerous development. With the increasing tendency for students to study for a MA, not as a result of any genuine desire to further their knowledge or to become part of the Academic institution, but simply as a means of delaying entering the job market in troubled times, this will fairly straightforwardly result in 'two tiers' of graduate

“The average course fees for a one-year postgraduate programme is about £3,000 for students from the EEA (European Economic Area).
Non-EEA students pay on average about £7,000 for an arts subject or £8,000 for a science subject. Clinical studies and MBAs can be about double these amounts.
Living costs for an academic year are about £6,000 (more in London).” (source: )

With only limited scholarships/funding available and no tuition fee loans to cover the costs of studying, it is fairly obvious that MA's will be prohibitively expensive to the vast, VAST majority of those who don't have private funding to cover the cost of their programme. So, we will have:

+an increasing number of upper middle class students who have studied for a Masters because they can, to avoid entering the job market, etc.
+ so, an increasing number of candidates for graduate jobs with Masters qualifications.
+ therefore, jobs will go to middle class graduates who have been able to afford to study for a Postgraduate qualification in order to make themselves more employable, devaluing the Bachelors even further.

-With £20k+ of debt incurred just from studying for your Bachelors, how will you ever afford to study for an MA necessary to get a good job and actually pay it off? What a faulty product we're being provided with, huh?

4)“It's okay to charge tuition fees, because if you don't end up earning over the £21,000/pa threshhold, then you won't have to pay it back anyway.”

This is often presented as a justification for the fees and their potential impact on those from lower income brackets – often by those, one could wryly note, who would not feel comfortable taking on the millstone of thousands of pounds worth of debt with the expectation that they would never in fact be able to pay it off.

It is somewhat disturbing that we are actually telling poorer students not to worry about the debt they're taking on because when they fail to become a high earner, they won't have to pay it back anyway. Is it already a given that their degree will be worth less than £21,000 p/a to them – where for others, it entitles them to £50k+? Furthermore, when they do break through that £21k threshold, their debt of £20k+ must still be paid off in its entireity, regardless of whether they earn £21k/pa or £120k/pa. And it is also worth noting that many students from higher income backgrounds have access to Bank of Mum and Dad funding which allows them to avoid incurring tuition fee debt in the first place ANYWAY. However you slice it, that £20k+ of student debt is vastly greater for some than for others, and encouraging students to avoid paying it back by not breaking through the earning threshold is teeth-curlingly regressive – evocative of Victorian attitudes towards accepting one's lot in life. The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate - lower your sights, those from lower income brackets, and lower your expectations accordingly, then you can the shadow cast by debt mountain.

5)The infantilisation of the next generation.

“Coming of age is a young person's transition from childhood to adulthood.” (source: )

“The age of majority is the threshold of adulthood as it is conceptualized (and recognized or declared) in law. It is the chronological moment when a minor ceases to legally be considered a child and assumes control over their persons, actions, and decisions, thereby terminating the legal control and legal responsibilities of their parents or guardian over and for them.” (source:

In the United Kingdom, our age of majority is 18. This is the age at which, in the eyes of the law, the state and our culture, we cease to be children and become adults.

Media coverage of the recent spate of student protests and occupations has, for the most part, described 'agitators' as 'children' – despite the fact that the paradigmatic construction of the 'student' to which they refer is unabashedly 18 and therefore, indupitably adult.
Yet perhaps this is not such a misnomer.

Our Universities are filled with 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 year olds with no/limited experience of the workforce who have never been financially self sufficient and who are, in all fairness, forced by the system to rely on funding from parents or similar. Our society so often defines the worth of the individual on the basis of their financial position; there is a strange shame in grown adults being financially dependent on others. But this is unavoidable – particularly in the case of those from upper level income brackets, who are given less money (smaller loans, no bursaries) precisely because their parents income has been assessed as being sufficient to cover a parental contribution throughout their period of study. Why has this situation arisen – one in which adults who are uniformly 18 or older are still considered to be the financial responsibility of their parents, and as such put in a situation in which they are forced to be so? If you don't qualify for income assessed bursaries, you HAVE to rely on parental contributions to fund your cost of living throughout your studies (or get a job to fund yourself. Working throughout University impacts on the time you can spend studying; it is prohibitive when it comes to taking on extra-curricular activities - the ones which will really get you that job, remember?- and it automatically makes your life infinitely more difficult, and hence reduces the chances of getting a good degree, than someone who doesn't have to work.)

It is not in anybodies interests for universities to produce a strange hybrid of intellectual naivite; Man-children and Girl-Women whose vested interests diverge wildly from those of the rest of society. A generation of infantilised adults, with little in common with other people of a similar age who have not attended a University education,a sense of entitlement and limited real world experience is detrimental to the whole of society.

Tuition fees propogate this system by creating the degree as product, a 'finishing school for the middle classes', where people pay for the 'student experience' and expect mum and dad to foot the bill, where possible. Grown adults are forced to rely, for their cost of living, on other grown adults. It is not a nice thing, for an adult to be utterly dependent on another individual. It is not fair for parents, who want the best for their offspring, to be forced into continuing to fund their lives long into adulthood in order that they are in a position to compete with others from different social backgrounds. It seems that a total reworking of the HE system is ultimately needed to encourage the shift in culture which would be beneficial to all. A living wage for students coupled with the abolition of tuition fees would help to model a system in which studying for a degree is viewed as an academic occupation, be it the first step onto the ladder of academia or a period of intellectual growth and enlightenment, rather than merely a few years joshing around and a route into gainful employment.

These arguments are not the strongest or most powerful that can be made against tuition fees, and indeed (imho) are superceded by the biggest argument of all, which is the ideological one that Academia should not be sacrificed on the altar of market forces. However, they do go some way towards countering certain specific arguments put forward by some who argue that tuition fees provide a progressive model for our education system, and underestimate the detrimental affects they have on society.

Additionally, I think they highlight a number of hidden facets of the problem which have not, as yet, been subject to much attention. There are far more traps inherent in the process of commodification of education than are immediately obvious – some of these will prove to be hidden oubliettes, unnoticed and until they are too deeply entrenched in our culture and system to be challenged. (Sometimes, when I look at the direction in which our country is headed, it terrifies me.)

We are being asked, in some senses, to consider our degrees to be a product, and to evaluate them on the basis of their success in this framework – key criteria, the 'student experience', and how our chances of gainful employment are impacted. Even on the basis of such criteria, we are being sold a product that is not fit for purpose.