Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tuition fees: If access to education is the main issue, today's vote is irrelevant.

Something very important has got lost in the dramatic and newsworthy scuffles over higher education funding. Both sides of the debate are confirming a view of universities, degrees and graduates which should, in a truly progressive society, be challenged and overturned. I'm talking about the idea that society is divided into those who go to university, and those who don't. What is at stake in this vote is the question of how many people, from which backgrounds, will have the chance to pass through this magical land, to complete the transformation from non-graduate to graduate, and how much of that cost they should bear as individuals. The land and the transformation are taken as read.

A lot of anger has flared up on both sides at assumptions made by the other, and it is this binary presentation of graduates vs non-graduates which is clouding the issue to such an unhelpful degree. Here are a few of the stereotypes and tropes which have been crystallising for decades, and which are shaping the public and parliamentary debates:

  • Hard-working people on lower incomes should not have to pay for other people to go to university and therefore go on to earn more.
  • Those same lower-income non-graduates need other people to go to university to learn to become doctors, teachers and solicitors because one day they will need to call on that expertise.
  • People go to university to gain access to higher earnings. Once they have passed through the system, they can afford to pay for their course.
  • The awarding of degrees helpfully separates those who are intelligent and hard-working enough to pass a course from those who aren't. This is a good way to determine who is fit to do certain jobs.
  • Too many young people go to university. Many of them are studying subjects which have no benefit to society, or the courses they are on are not of a high enough standard to guarantee that they deserve the status of 'graduate'.

This is all bunkum, and does not fit with the real-life examples people encounter every day. These two discrete groups do not and should not exist. After a few years doing a job, there is little to choose between an employee who studied for three years full-time before gaining any experience, and one who learned everything they needed to on the job. Most white-collar workers will have gained their skills via a combination of academic and on-the-job learning, having been through a mixture of training courses, work-experience placements, evening courses etc. You can (I think) become a qualified accountant by leaving school after your GCSEs, working for and being trained by a firm, working your way up through the ranks, attending a part-time course at a university or college, and passing certain exams. Or you can study for three years, maybe with a 'sandwich year' to gain more first-hand business experience, then join a firm to get more experience and expertise, then pass your final exams. How does it matter if one route makes you a 'graduate' and the other doesn't?

What I've hopefully illustrated here is entirely unrevolutionary idea that there is no natural division between graduates and non-graduates. This categorisation only exists in the elitist rhetoric of both sides of the debate: the politicians who wish people to pay more for their own elite status (and, as raising tuition fees is clearly not intended to plug the hole in the country's finances, to keep that elite status out of the hands of the more disadvantaged parts of society), and the current and aspiring students who are protesting to maintain the current slightly more open and affordable access to that elite status.

What we should be doing is tearing down that division.

Why should a university education consist of the three-year degree or nothing, regardless of how much it costs? Why should it be a choice of paying to have three-years' access to lectures, tutorials, library books, online journals, careers services, student societies and study-skills workshops... or having no access to any of this? Why are these institutions, which have benefitted from public funding of various kinds for so long, only there for the benefit of the lucky few who have the time, funds, and the previous qualifications to be allowed full access? Why should people who aren't affiliated with a university, including those who graduated a month earlier, have to see public libraries cut their opening hours, evening schools cancel courses or increase fees, smaller museums and galleries close, but still not be allowed to benefit from the resources on a campus on their own doorstep?

In short, how is it justifiable to keep all of that knowledge and teaching expertise behind such high walls? Where does this leave the interested amateur, the employee looking to move to a different sector, the employer who wants their workforce to have the most up-to-date knowledge?

Here are a few ideas, which I readily admit are off the top of my head:

  • University lecturers should run short, affordable courses for anyone who wants to come along, regardless of age or previous qualifications.
  • People should be able to pay for a month's access to the university library and its online resourses over the summer break, when these facilities are underused.
  • Systems need to be put in place by which amateur research projects can be assessed by academics, published by university-run journalsand given the chance to make a contribution to knowledge.
  • All universities should provide some free-access e-learning courses, covering a mixture of core knowldege from different subject areas, study skills, and current developments.
I also have a question for all of my fellow students who have put the time and effort into protesting over the last few weeks. If this is about solidarity and fair access to education, would you be willing to put the same time and effort into sharing your notes and the knowledge you've gained with one of the unfortunate sixth form graduates who decided they could not afford to join your number? Would you put one hour a week into running an open-access course, writing a free online guide, publicising an open lecture? Are you actually willing to undermine that elitist division between graduates and non-graduates? Or is this all a knee-jerk reaction to an attack on our privilleged, well-guarded domain?

Free, fair access to education at all academic levels can be achieved whether fees are set at ten pounds or ten thousand pounds. Knowledge is free, so long as we are willing to share it.

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