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University tuition fees: not just the fees

Thousands of students protested against the big hike in university tuition fees today - and they were right to do so! But ever since New Labour introduced fees and promised blithely that they probably wouldn't increase much, it's been on the cards. It was clearly a slippery slope - once you accept tuition fees, there's no logical reason they should be limited to £3k, or £6k, or £300k, it's just what you can get away with politically.

The deeper change is that the Con/Lib government is simultaneously going to cut down the funding that goes directly from government to the universities to teach students (the so-called HEFCE T-allocation). I asked our college Principal about this and he said:

"The exact figure is not yet clear but will be of the order of a 75% cut. So this is a very significant development. Whereas the previous "top-up fees", introduced by Labour, were intended to increase funding for universities, the current proposals are clearly to substitute contributions from the individual for government funding."

So the cost of universities is not just changing incrementally, it's being shifted off the shoulders of government and onto the shoulders of the poor students who are going to have to decide if it's worth it or not to start adult life off with a massive debt. (The government has said that the enhanced student loans and bursaries etc will mitigate this, but they clearly either don't understand, or don't really care, how people work with money when they haven't got much.)

The big idea here is a simple free-market system: if universities have to compete with each other for the money that students choose to "spend" on their courses, then they'll need to improve their courses and make them well-tailored to the job market, and the resulting market pressure will push the quality of UK higher education right up.

Stefan Collini wrote a good article in the LRB criticising various aspects of this, such as what it might do to the arts and humanities. But the thing that probably troubles me the most is that young people are essentially supposed to take on the burden of "designing" university provision, by collectively understanding the jobs market, the purpose of education, etc etc, and choosing courses appropriately. I know when I was 18 I didn't have a flipping clue about any of that, and I'm sure lots of my friends didn't either.

The free-market approach relies heavily on the perfectly-informed rational consumer. It needs the consumers to be aware of the state of the market, so they can make rational decisions based on that information. Without that information, you get market failure. Even if we assume that this market approach could be a good way to design our university system, I'm still deeply concerned that it will not have the effect it's supposed to. Even worse, I know that wealthy families are better informed and better educated about university choices and things like that, so I'm concerned that this is going to increase differences between rich and poor, despite the government's sticking-plaster promises about widening-participation measures.

I was reading a research article about music education, from 2007 (i.e. nothing to do with the current debate!), and found this short summary of evidence about young people's career choices:

"The literature on career choice, and the factors that influence young people's career decision-making, are too vast to be explored in detail here. However, a few salient points are worth noting. First, young people's career ideas have been shown to be based on stereotypes – either stereotypes of the work involved in any occupation, or stereotypes of what are acceptable ‘male’ and ‘female’ jobs (O'Neal et al., 1977; Nelson, 1978; Gottfredson, 1981; Hemsley-Brown, 1998; Furlong & Biggart, 1999). Second, their occupational knowledge is restricted in range, and often in depth (Hemsley-Brown, 1998). Third, any knowledge about careers is also influenced by social class (Ball & Maguire, 2000), culture (Hollands, 1990; Hodkinson et al., 1996), geographical location (Banks et al., 1992), and opportunity structure (Roberts, 1977).

"[...] Finally, Hodkinson et al. (1996) argue that in real life many career decisions are ‘pragmatically rational’ rather than the more fully reasoned ‘technically rational’ decisions that policy makers, and careers guidance practitioners, hope young people will make. The young people in their cohort made career decisions that ‘were pragmatic, rather than systematic’ (Hodkinson & Sparkes, 1997: 33). They argue that these ‘pragmatic’ decisions are made within a person's horizons for action." [Source: Hancock & Hoskins 2007]

This all rings pretty true to me. Careers advice was rubbish and irrelevant when I was young, and now from an older perspective I can see it's probably simply because there's no real way to convey all that mass of information to young people in the tiny amount of time and resources available. The government is making the wrong bet with our university system.

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