Before 1997, students in Britain didn’t pay to go to University. But in under 13 years, it looks as if the majority of the financial burden for university could be passed to the student.
So what does this mean in practice?
Well firstly, and most bluntly, less poor people will be able to go to University. Yes, we will have a national scholarship fund, but they can not feasibly pay all the fees of the many, many people who would see £36,000 for a three year degree as an unjustifiable financial burden.
In addition to this, cutting back teaching budgets except in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but leaving research funding untouched will hit the new universities hardest. They focus more strongly on teaching and humanity based subjects. The Financial Times is already predicting that many may close. And these are the universities which take the largest proportion of state school students, and those who are first in their family to go to University.
So participation will decrease, but mainly from the lower end of the wealth scale.
Secondly, these plans could see us lose the essence of university education to the harsh reality of economics. Even if you can’t value a degree in pounds and pence, even if it doesn’t turn out the kind of research that businesses and governments pay millions for, it may have an importance which supercedes that. We need people to study and understand history, philosophy and the arts, not because of the job you might get with it, or the money you might make, but because those things are important to us as a society.
But without their teaching budgets, how can these courses continue? Future students, looking at the spectre of debt that could last for their entire working life, will go for the degree that pays most. So with less students paying, and no money from the government, these courses will close. That’s what the market will demand.
Further, even though the lack of government funds is being held up as the reason for these changes, it is important to remember that all the fees will still be loaned to students. So until the graduates make it all the way through university, and find a job that can pay off a total of £50,000 of debt, the financial burden will still be on the UK’s budget. With so many problems already caused by our debt culture, is the state handing out enormous loans to so many students wise governance – especially with such a voliatile job market? These plans make neither economic nor practical sense.
The Browne Review could herald a new era of higher education in this country. But the future it offers, unless you are an exceptionally rich prospective science student, is far from bright.