Live now, pay later?

It’s curious that following last month’s feature on education and training, within weeks the education establishment has been rocked or not first by publication of the Dearing report and then by Education Secretary, David Blunkett’s radical proposals on U

After all, at a stroke, decades and the cherished principle of `free’ higher education have been wiped out with the abolition of maintenance grants and proposed charging (albeit means-tested) of 1,000 per student per year for University tuition fees.

Certainly in the Commons the exchanges were rancorous, even incredulous. The now famous quote, How can a Labour Government even contemplate kicking away the ladder of opportunity from so many students’ (Dennis Canavan, Labour), said it all. And with some on the Tory benches openly supporting Blunkett’s announcements, this was a picture of predictable mayhem!

But outside that chamber, reactions have been markedly different; sober, restrained almost even congratulatory. Fact is, far from an establishment outraged, what we saw was a general nodding of sage vice chancellors’ heads. If not outright approval, at least there was agreement that it had to be done! Why?

Well the answer is clear enough underfunding. The University system has been in a state of near collapse; the last decade of educational expansion, although to be welcomed, has been a financial disaster leaving budget shortfalls estimated at 3billion. But, wait a minute; abolishing free University education whether right in principle, thin end of the wedge, or not will only generate 350million!

So just how radical and well targeted is this nettle grasping’ exercise? First, it seems incredible that, in the face of the crying need for more UK plc wealth-generating technology graduates, any Government should put a 10,000 hurdle in their way even more, that any University should embrace it.

Surely it’s at best glib simply to assert that potential students will not be put off by starting work with huge debts? And isn’t there something inherently limiting in the claim that they should be pleased to invest in the education that’s going to deliver them better income? All but the affluent and/or ambitious with a clear vocation may well think twice. And, since when has it been accepted wisdom that a University education automatically earns its graduates more money? The UK is littered with examples of those without doing very nicely thank you and conversely those with, not. Look at Ron Dearing himself.

But beyond this, surely we must never view the function of education as solely well-paid job ticket provider’? Treading this path devalues what we once termed education for its own sake’. And it risks losing that most unquantifiable yet historically invaluable of investments for everyone in the UK the potential for opportunistic innovation.

For a society which, in very many ways, has been the beneficiary of free University education, this meek acquiescence is outrageous.