A new year is bringing radical new changes to the higher education sector and ones that could see a complete overhaul of the current perception that university should be available to (virtually) all.
From now on, school leavers who achieve a less-than-glittering DDD at A Level will no longer be eligible for a student loan to fund their dream of going to university.
Instead 20,000 of them will be given cash incentives to take cheaper vocational courses in further education colleges.
I fully support this review. Yes, it’s a policy U-turn and another example of the government trying to get us out of a mess they got us into, when in 1999 when then-prime minister Tony Blair announced that he wanted half of all youngsters to go to university.
However, since then, tuition fees have risen we are saddling our young people – irrespective of their job prospects – with horrific amounts of debt.
Lower grades equalling lower funding makes total sense to me.
Britain is in short supply of manually skilled workers, such as carpenters, plumbers, nannies and electricians. I could go on.
Recently we’ve looked to Eastern Europeans to fill that gap but with Brexit around the corner, this is more problematic. Train our teenagers in these in-demand skills and they will have jobs for life and make a useful contribution to society.
Instead, we have that guy – or girl – who would be a bricklayer now working as a media consultant, earning a third of what they could do if they were prepared to get their hands dirty.
The problem is vocational courses have always been considered the poorer relation of higher education; the poly to the university, and, as reported in The Sunday Times derided as something FOPC (for other people’s children). This needs to change.
By funding that sector properly and telling young adults you can learn while you earn and start working in a job that can become a well-paid career, maybe we can alter its image.
Yes, an 18 year old might prefer to lounge around at uni than do an apprenticeship at a motor mechanics but five years down the line, the former could well be barista in a coffee shop with a five-figure debt of while the latter may have their own garage and a healthy deposit for their own home.
Record numbers of teenagers are heading to uni. In 2017, records showed 49% were entering higher education – a percentage point shy of Blair’s pledge.
There’s this idea that no matter how dire the A Level results – or equivalent – the clearing system and commission-charging agents will get you in to a course, no matter if it’s vague General Studies, Media Studies, Communications or whatever.
If you are lucky to then get a job (often competing with people the same age who started off as runners or tea-makers in companies when you started uni and now have good jobs there) the salaries are small.
We need to do away with the idea that studying a subject is a stepping stone to a job in said subject. Put it this way, I know lots of people in the media and I don’t know one with a degree in Media Studies.
According to UCAS, 12% of university undergraduates are not on their first-choice course. That’s around 50,000 students.
A great many of those will have grabbed whatever’s been offered and settled for the so-called Mickey Mouse degrees that fail to prepare them for work. When they leave, they’ve still got the same size loan as the graduates in Law, Physics, Maths or Medicine but the not the same size job prospects.
In 2017, the Institute of Fiscal Studies calculated the average post-graduate debt to be 50K. Starting salaries in ordinary jobs are unlikely to be at the minimum of 25K required to start paying off the student loan and, frankly, many may never reach it.
After 25 years (during which time our postgrad continues to live with their parents, or rent, as they have no chance of getting on the housing ladder) it’s written off, which must cost the government, or rather the taxpayer, a fortune.
None of it makes sense. Young people are told that not working hard or not having talent doesn’t necessarily preclude them from achieving their dream. Their debts are a burden on them and, ultimately, a burden on society. It means a decision they made at 18, will affect them for the rest of their working life and impact on everything they do.
But let me play devil’s advocate here. If you look at it from the other side, removing the funding for lower-calibre courses would be catastrophic for lower-tier universities (generally the former polys) who welcome these DDD-grade students that the higher–tier unis turn away.
They still have places to fill and many of these courses help fund the more costlier ones, such as sciences, that need labs and equipment. If funding is removed from the less able domestic students, it will lead to more international students taking the places, and paying higher fees, to fill the gap and keep these institutions afloat.
It’s a mess of our politicians’ making. There’s no doubt about it. But something needs to be done as we can’t continue in the same vein. If we do, higher education will become increasingly devalued and young people will be increasingly in debt.
I can hear it: the cries of ‘it’s not fair’. Well here’s a thing: life’s not fair.
Not everyone has the right to earn 50K or own their own home or have as many children as they like or take two holidays a year. But the irony is, landing yourself with a huge debt at a young age, after graduating with a worthless degree will give you even less chance of achieving those dreams mentioned above so maybe it’s time we all need to think about the bigger picture.
We have a responsibility to teach our young people life lessons that have yet to learn as they’re the ones who will pay.
Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education
About William Clarence Education: The leading education advisory and consultancy service in the UK. With an unrivalled reach into the UK Schooling and University network, William Clarence offers unbiased advice to students and parents from around the world; at every stage of their academic journey. From Independent School Application and Placement, full UCAS and University application consultancy, Oxbridge Applications US College Admission and even Homeschooling programmes, William Clarence Education draws on a deep relationship driven network with schools, Universities and senior education figures within the industry. By putting the student and family at the centre of the process, William Clarence ensures their clients reach their maximum potential and gain access to the very best of UK education.