Sunday, 6 January 2013

A new year and the same old problem over tuition fees

It’s a new year, the season for cold mornings and new resolutions to be thinner, fitter and more sober in the year ahead. Along with these comes the return of an old familiar problem, how to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university.

The government isn’t making much of fist of things at the moment thanks to its decision to raise tuition fees to £9,000. A fact attested to by a report from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) which shows the number of applicants having fallen by 6.6% to 653,600 with 188,700 of those prospective students failing to secure a place.

Labour shadow higher education minister Shabana Mahmood told that the government’s policy on tuition fees had ‘put a brake on aspiration and has led to people considering applying for university to decide against doing so at precisely the time that higher level skills have never been more important to secure their future;’ before going on to add that this was also ‘holding back the potential’ of the UK economy.

The UCAS report says that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are 10% more likely to attend a ‘high tariff’ university; ministers have used this to claim that the poor are not being hit disproportionately by higher tuition fees. The report also shows that more females than males are applying to go to university with white working class males the most likely to miss out.

Mary Curnock, chief executive of UCAS said this trend was ‘striking and worrying’ and that the financial burden of going to university was putting off many prospective students. Sally Hunt of the Universities and Colleges Union said that ‘fewer students at university represents the failure of the government’s higher education policies;’ adding that ‘if we are to open up access to university to our most talented people we need to remove punitive financial barriers.’

Defending the government’s position higher education minister David Willets said that he expected the total number of students going to university to be higher than in any year since 2010. Where we groundlings see only a wilderness of contracting opportunity Mr Willets sees the sunlit uplands of the Promised Land; you clearly get a better class of view when looking down from an ivory tower.

The waste of potential is always tragic; when the potential in question is that of young people it is positively criminal. David Cameron and his ministry of almost no talent whatsoever seem content though to watch that happen, blithely unaware of the impact not going to university will have on the health and economic outcomes experienced by millions of young people.

University admissions aren’t, of course, the only game in town, the chronic lack of apprenticeships and the slow death of Britain’s FE colleges from a thousand tiny cuts are cause for concern too; but they do grab the lion’s share of media attention. Not least because children growing up in leafy suburbs are being priced out of a university education too and their parents are angry and articulate enough to make things uncomfortable for David Cameron at the next election.

A bad situation is made much worse by the fact the education policy seems to be trapped somewhere between the rocks in David Willets head and the hard place occupied by Michael Gove’s ambition.

Willets has allowed his considerable intellect, he revels in the nickname ‘two brains’, to make him complacent. He simply can’t conceive of the notion that someone so clever as he is could make a mistake about raising tuition fees; by the time events prove him wrong it will probably be too late.

Michael Gove, a k a the busiest man in politics, seems intent on wrecking schools with a mixture of misplaced nostalgia and deranged ambition with a little pure eccentricity sprinkled on top. This is the man who wants to bring back lessons in Latin, turn the history curriculum into a replay of the ‘drum and trumpet’ one abandoned in the sixties and sent a copy of the King James bible to every school in the land within which his name appears in larger print that that of either King James or the lord god almighty himself.

Important issues like tragic levels of illiteracy amongst pupils going up to primary school and the lack of decent vocational courses don’t even make it onto his radar. His every action since taking up office has been an overt play to win the approval of the Tory turnips he thinks may one day help him to win the party leadership he so unconvincingly pretends not to want.

Just before the conference season lumbered into motion we all had a good belly laugh at Nick Clegg’s apology for opposing tuition fees during the election campaign only to go back on his word once in office. Looking back from a few months hence the delivery still seems laughably inept; but its beginning to look like was demonstrating a rare hint of conscience on the part of a senior politician.

The education system is being slowly wrecked by people who either don’t know or don’t care how much harm they are doing. Schools are being transformed into places that teach young people to know their place rather that opening their eyes to what they can achieve through hard work. The universities are going back to being a glorified finishing school for Sebastian Flyte and his chums while a generation of doctors and engineers we’re never going to have flip burgers or draw the dole.

Some day soon this will make us all as sorry as Nick Clegg was pretending to be in his laughable video; but by then nobody will feel much like laughing.

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