The big Universities vote

Ahhh England. Always willing to get all up in arms over something that would never had occurred to me. Apparently for many years, university tuition was “free” for students. Of course, it was never actually free, as there is a real cost associated with education. But the funds to support universities were all central, meaning that each and every tax-payer contributed to the higher education of each student. Some number of years ago “fees” were introduced, at the meagre sum of about £3k per year. So £9-12k for a 3-4 year degree, and a generous system of student loans that means that you only paid money back once you had a certain income.

Today is the big vote in parliament about increasing the level of these fees for university tuition, to a maximum value of £9k per year. Still a bargain in the context of an American university: that’s £27-36 for a 3-4 year degree, or $42-57k for an entire degree, including at places like Oxford or Cambridge, compared with $50k PER YEAR to attend a comparable US institution, such as Harvard. Even “public” (state) universities in America cost a fortune: at the very non-Harvard state University I attended, this year the numbers are:

In-State Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $11,722

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $19,542

Non-Michigan Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $29,622

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $37,442

So again, for an out of state student, a year is almost as much as a complete UK degree.

My biggest beef with the coverage of all of this, and believe me, it’s been a near-constant drone in the background for the last few weeks, is the prevailing idea that “it used to be free and now it’s not.” It was never free. This is just a shift in the burden of who pays, from a distributed model (everyone pays for the few students attending university) to a direct model (those who attend university pay for it). I don’t understand what’s not fair about this. The benefit is direct: yesterday I saw numbers showing a £400k+ lifetime additional income for those with a university degree compared to for those without one: is that not worth paying a few paltry tens of thousands for? Especially when none is demanded up-front and the overall payments don’t start until you have a significant income? Sounds fair to me. But then again, I’m always confused when the welfare state model is supported over the personal responsibility model, because after all–I am American. This is what I’m used to.

Oh I know, I’m risking significant ire for having this opinion. The BBC even seems keen to dump their neutrality and never uses the words “universities fees rise” without the word “controversial” in the same sentence. Maybe it is controversial to some, certainly we’ve seen students protesting and even mini-riots in the last few weeks. But on this one I’m with the much-beleaguered coalition government: someone has to pay for higher education, and I’ve not yet seen a good argument as to why it should not be the people who benefit directly from it. (Now ducking for inevitable flames…)

17 responses to “The big Universities vote

  1. the fact is, the US system is broken beyond repair, so I don’t think comparisons with that are fair. the argument that those who benefit should pay ignores the fact that a Uni degree is fast becoming a default requirement for even entry level jobs. the UK system is predicated on the belief that (like healthcare), education should not be beyond people’s means – which it is fast in danger of becoming (also not forgetting that net salaries are already lower on average here than in US for many). that then helps perpetuate the class system.

    I was here when the first fees were introduced and people spoke then of a slippery slope – this only confirms that belief.

    • I would never deny that there are some problems (increasingly serious) in the US system but I think there is a clear and critical difference and that is to do with the binary nature in the UK of having a degree or not having a degree. “A degree” means something that is undertaken with 3 (or occasionally 4) years of full time study between the ages of 18-22 or thereabouts. There are no other real options. The thing I still like about the flexibility of the American system is that the tuition is based on credits, not on years. As such, you can study part-time. You can work while you study. You can choose, as my mom did, to go “back to school” in your mid-thirties and take inexpensive community college classes before eventually transferring to a four year college, which may or may not be one of the universities largely populated by 22 year olds, and earn your degree. I know there are some limited examples of this here, like the Open University, but the part-time and flexible options are severely limited. In terms of getting people from all backgrounds into higher education, I think that is critical.

      • thats a valid point.

        as someone who still (20 yrs later) is paying for her liberal arts degree, I think that doing everything possible to ensure that education remains affordable should be a priority

  2. Ha ha , I prepared a blog-post in anticipation …….

    Seriously though, there are many real differences between the US and UK – I knew Americans would not, and could not be expected to understand why we feel as we do.

    Also, our fees don’t include accommodation and food and there is no discount for going to a local Uni.

    • As you can see in the numbers above, room and board is not included for us either, and the fees are still about equal to or significantly higher than the maximum proposed UK fees. And again, that’s for a “Big 10” state school in the midwest, not something of the calibre of the top UK institutions (sorry MSU, you know I love you!)

  3. I suppose it depends whether you see education as a personal tool and ticket to a high income, or as a public benefit to society at large. I guess it can be both, which makes this complicated.

    My husband has found that it’s quite compromising in the US. If students are paying for a degree (essentially), it’s difficult to maintain rigorous standards. You are not popular as a prof if you have students drop out of your classes, or if they don’t make the grade. So if you value your career, you need to make sure that your classes are popular and not too difficult. That can be compromising. He sees a lot of the attitude that he calls “shovelling in a bucket” – ie the student is a bucket, and the university’s job is simply to fill him up with education. It’s not quite as crass as the student as a consumer, buying credits, but sometimes it feels not far off. But then my husband is very purist, and would love education to be all about enquiring minds and freedom of thought. I guess you get that at Masters/PhD level, but in Britain, because we specialise so early (and there’s good and bad in that), in theory you get more of that at Bachelors level too (though “in theory” is the key here).

    I’m sorry you feel you have to duck, though. You of all people, with experience of the US and UK systems, have the right to have an opinion on this question.

    Good subject to air.

  4. Mine was the last year at Sheffield without paying fees I think. Grants had long stopped in all practical form though.

    I think the problem is going to be that the courses that will end up expensive will be engineering, medicine and science. As an engineer who has done his bit on both sides of the Atlantic to try and get kids to think about engineering and science for careers, I think the (much) higher cap is a tremendously bad thing if these crucial fields get hit the hardest.

    Charge Politics students, media studies and sociologists 9k! …That should trigger an incoming!!!

    My points are these. Yes I can see a case for fees, and increasing them with inflation. I think those fields that society desperately needs should be kept at lower cost and better funded. Yes Britain needs to cut spending, but cutting a swathe through Whitehall, NHS Management and investing that money in research and our future is something that might actually help put Britain ahead!

    As for Labour… It was they who brought in fees in the first place and everytime Idiot Miliband opens his smug mouth he should remember that and instead try to offer a sensible, realistic alternative!

    Finally, I’m not convinced the US system is better for some of the reasons raised above – it’s simply different. I’ve heard Iota’s concerns from many others here.

    Fascinating debate though!

  5. How much tax do graduates pay on the £400k+ extra they earn? Would that cover the cost of their education?

    Do you think students should be selected on ability, or ability to pay?

    • That’s the sort of “muddying the water” that has caused huge problems in this debate: selection/admission has nothing to do with it. Ability to pay has nothing to do with it since the loan programme is so available across the board (which is, interestingly enough, not true in the US, where it can be hard to get loans if your parents have savings).

  6. Heya, hope you don’t mind but I linked to you in my post about this! I have to say, I mostly agree with you!

  7. Great post, and I admire you for putting it out there, especially in your situation. (I was blocked by someone on Twitter for uttering 14o characters of “another viewpoint”!! Tee hee.)
    Having lived in the US for 20 years (and currently with a senior applying for the $50k per year colleges), the only sympathy I have is that the fees were tripled over night. That’s hard to plan for as a parent or a student.
    The claim that working class kids will no longer have access to college is simply not true. A surprising number of people I meet here put themselves through college. The fact is, that with loans and presumably scholarships in the future, your university application is not going to be dependant on your parents’ income as mine was, way back when.
    As we all know, one system (US versus UK) is not better than the other. It’s simply a different mind-set of who pays and how it’s paid off. Every American I know left college with a loan to pay off; it’s just part of life over here and no one complains about it.

  8. I find the whole debate interesting. I went to a small private university in the midwest of the US — which charged at the time $27,000/year (14 years ago). I could never have afforded that. I was, though, given a 3/4 scholarship that I had to work hard to keep (based on marks/grades) and have had the rest in loans since. I officially paid off my student loans at the age of 30 and now (at 32) have just finished a 1 year masters degree (whoop! whoop!) here in the UK. As a foreigner, I paid the full tuition — which was 4X the rate of an in-country charge. My partner is doing an undergraduate in the sciences and will have his tuition go up to the top cap. I’m saying all of this to let you know I have a fairly well-rounded perspective. I have had to work very very hard for my education in terms of finding creative funding and paying student loans. While at university this year in England, I see so many drunk and ridiculous undergraduate students who are not taking their education seriously at all. 9,000 GBP/year is a big increase for students (trust me — our bottom line in our household is being hit hard), BUT…….BUT…..maybe it will raise the level of education to a higher standard? My partner’s classes — the lecturers constantly make amends for students who have partied too hard the night before and commonly pass substandard work. I found that similar to my masters experience. If students have to pay for their education (assuming availability of fair student loans) — might they take it a little bit more seriously and stop the 3am every night drinking/partying/getting ill outside the library? (Anticipating flame-o-grams on this one.)

  9. I think Rachel will find that quite a lot of people agree. I’ll admit – I could have worked harder at university and if I had been paying or borrowing money to go, I know I would have.

    • I think there’s another interesting aspect of this discussion. When students receive financial aid packages in the US, they nearly always include the requirement that the student have a part-time on-campus job for 10-15 hours a week. So the aid can be grants, loans, or a combination, but almost always includes the need to also work to support their tuition.

      A Brit with whom I was chatting (and disagreeing) today said that there are few to no merit based scholarships in the UK, does anyone know if that’s true or have some views on the subject? In the end I had several of these, which knocked my overall bill down to a few grand a year and between my parents’ savings and my working part-time (as above) I never actually had to take out loans.

      • I had a very small bursary during my time at uni in the UK (£1K/year), which was supposed to be a merit-based scholarship to help international students.

  10. I think there will be more and more scholarships as the tuition thing takes off, although as new graduates, people may be required to work for the company for a few years. My nephew plans to go to flight school rather than uni, and there are a few scholarships awarded to do that. The competition is fierce though and it really doesn’t make a dent in the massive fees. (We’re talking about 70k sterling.)
    Incidentally, when I worked in a huge American firm (Training and HR) we developed recuitment criteria and one stipulation was that the undergraduates had to have held a part-time job while at college.

    • I come to UK from East Asia. There, students who work during studies, for example in university and particularly when in school, are look at in a negative light (although it is slowly changing, e.g., in Americanised Singapore). In contrast, a huge emphasis is placed on national exams. There are national primary school leaving exams (like PSLE in Singapore), national school leaving exams (like HKCEE in Hong Kong, in this case region wide), national college entrance exams (like GaoKao in China), etc taking on various names across East Asia. The exams are very competitive and exacting and normally the top few students in that year in the country are reported in the press.

      So using your (Expat Mum’s) recruitment criteria, I would never have made it into your company, because I never worked during school (and university). But, I spent all my time studying and earned good enough marks in the college entrance exam to enter an elite university.

      There is another thing noted by NFAH in one of her earlier post about the fact that UK education system is too exam focused. This is not something that I’ve thought about before reading from NFAH. My worry is that the exam rigour of e.g. A-level has been diluted over the years. If you look at A-level maths or physics for example they are way too simple. Till this day, I still remember two stacks of photocopied past/mock papers, each of around a metre high, that I had done to prepare me for the college entrance exams when I was in school. That was that kind of preparation that I had to do to make me competitive in the gruelling exams. I cried the night before the release of the national school leaving exam result, because the result of this one set of exams would hugely affect my future life.

      To be fair, this system is incredibly stressful, but it is also very meritocratic, and everyone in the country, rich or poor, takes exactly the same exam. What can be more fair than that? The results from different schools are strictly comparable, and it also removes much of the subjectivity and biases, when it comes to competing for limited places in elite universities or schools. There is only pen and paper, and how well you do is entirely dependent on how hard you studied in the last 2-3 years. May be because I am a product of such system, I am much in favour of very difficult and gruelling national exams to be taken at the end of 2-3 years of study in school, with the result counting for everything. The stressful process made me a stronger individual too.

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