Friday, December 05, 2003

It's the weekend again, but no rest for the wicked. I will be avoiding my own flat like the plague as fm2 has kindly decided to fill it with her old mates from uni for the weekend. Which brings me neatly to the subject of university top-up fees. Now I'm going to go a bit off-piste here and veer away from my normal lefty position so anyone of a nervous disposition should skip to the end.

First up, I don't think education should be paid for in terms of student grants, top-up fees or any other form of point-of-sale costs. However I also see the government's point of view that you can't keep on paying the cost of expanding higher education indefinitely.

Where it starts to break down is in the assumption that you *should* keep on expanding higer education. Let's face it - just looking at the amount of places available though clearing every year in the UK surely indicates that all these new tertiary education places leading to a degree of some sort are not so highly in demand that their courses are over-subscribed many times over. Or perhaps it indicates that the prospective students have failed to achieve even the minimal exam grades required of them. Either way - are these courses actually doing anyone any good?

There is a certain sized pie for higher education and it can't go round everyone. Tony's position is that everyone can still come to the picnic but they have to bring their own sandwiches, mine is that you're probably better off inviting fewer people in the first place. OK, OK, I know it sounds a bit elitist - the idea that not everyone who wants a place at university automatically gets one. But seriously guys, the requirements these days for some courses in some universities are so low that anyone with half a braincell and a modicum of initiative could gain the required qualifications with about 3 months work. Mature students are often not asked for formal qualifications of any kind. And mature in this case doesn't mean 50, it means 27.

Hardly fair it seems though to allow a gifted few from the population to sit around discussing Kafka for 3 years while the rest of the population is slaving away at the University of Life? Correct but so what? If we had a secondary education system that provided anything like a reasonable homogeneity of education then this would not be an issue. We are attempting to absolve the inequalities of unequal state funding, differing home environments and private educational advantages by allowing universal (sic) entrance to tertiary education rather than attempting to address inequality and keep tertiary education as something both affordable and worthwhile. I know it's harsh - hell I enjoyed dicking about at someone elses expense for 3 years, why shouldn't everyone, but that is really not the answer. How about as an alternative; (aged 18-21) the government just gives you 10k tax free to fuck off to Thailand for a couple of years with? You'll come back knowing at least as much useful employment information as 95% of 'graduates', and the government will still gain it's secondary goal - ie wiping 500,000 off the unemployment rolls.

However it would seem that actually it's the piece of paper that's important not what you learn, tho of course this has been true for years. So to some extent the 'democratisation' of the university system is not doing anyone any favours. A lot of people are spending a lot of money (student debt on graduation now ~ £9,000 - after top up fees £18,000) doing rubbish degrees simply because these days for the under 25s if you can't put BA after your name then frankly you must be the poster child for retard, where they could be achieving something worthwhile and valuable. Thus a degree is totally devalued, anyone who bucks the system and chooses to spend their time profitably rather than in a sheeplike acquisition of a meaningless qualification is unfairly stigmatised amd the cost to the population as a whole and to the individual forced down this route just goes on increasing.

We have come to the position where instead of paying a reasonable amount for a relatively small number of people to sit on their arses for 3 years and occassionally learn something useful we are paying a huge amount for practically everyone to sit on their arses for 3 years and learn fuck all. And all this in the name of 'equality' and 'preparing for the future'. Which is why my flat is being invaded this weekend by a bunch of 20 somethings who spent 3 years of their lives taking drugs at the 'University of Central England' while ostensibly studying for a degree in 'Media and Communications'.

All of which has presumeably qualified them to perform at exactly the same level as fm2 : Temp.

So what is the solution - fewer places, lower costs, higher costs (now there's a thought?) what??? Well, if I knew I would say, but here's a few thoughts.

First; the secondary education system MUST be sorted out first. It's a mess already - grammar schools, private schools, grant mainatained, religious, secondary modern, public schools, comprehensive, technology etc etc. While a plurality of options might be a good thing this is not the case in Britain. There is indeed a plurality of educational institutional types but for the majority there's no real choise - you get what you're given. Exam results may appear to be improving but no-one who works at the coal face in education beleives this. They know that standards are dropping year on year as exams become easier. Indeed, many public schools (in the UK public schools = elite private schools) now restrict what exams their pupils may take on the principle that many GCSEs are virtually worthless.

Second; For God's sake let's start teaching something useful at university. I'm not going to get into the detail of what is useful and what isn't but let's face it, there's a lot of wasted (non)effort going on out there.

Third; Being a graduate used to help assure an employer of a certain degree of intelligence. (Actually the sub-text reads better - they wanted and got a certain 'class' of person). This is no longer the case, so why don't we start pointing it out more, and hopefully people will wake up and stop wasting 3 years learning some interminable rubbish just to get a minimal scrap of a step on some glass ceilinged 'graduate ladder'.

Fourth; if we don't watch out our paper qualifications will soon become largely meaningless and emplyers will be forced to conduct their own tests to ascertain people's usefulness. I find it unlikely that this will include writing essays on the Kingdoms of 13th century Europe or calulating the libido of Mars.

Fifth; Contrary to popular belief some degrees still have some vocational value (physics, engineering, accountancy, law, genetics, economics etc). Industries that benefit from this should pay for this. I could say the same thing for the Social Anthropologies of the educational world but I think that's something governement will still end up paying for out of the 'Learning for learning's sake budget'. And why not? Just less of it than there is now, OK?

Skipped to the end?

1) Education should be free at the point of sale to everyone independent of ability to pay but dependent on ability to learn and profit from that learning.
2) Tertiary education should sit on a fair and equitable primary and secondary education system
3) Universal tertiary education should not be used to ‘make up’ for failing primary and secondary education by enrolling and graduating sub stabdards students. It simply doesn’t work like that and pretending otherwise is insane.
4) The huge increase in availability of course places is vastly increasing the cost of tertiary education
5) Educational inflation (hugely increased student numbers coupled with falling standards in secondary education) has made the actual value of many degrees minimal
6) Many people gain little from their ‘university’ experience but must still go because without their ‘piece of paper’ even low level office junior positions will be closed to them now as ‘everyone’ has a degree.
7) Huge debts are built up by the individual. The days of £25k for university leavers and £50k in 10 years allowing quick repayment are over, many people will take years to pay off debt.
8) Industry should help pay for degrees it finds useful to the extent and depth that is useful to that industry. Government should pay to keep 'learning for learning's sake' courses. Like mine for example : Astronomy :).

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