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Funding Higher Education – consider the bigger picture

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There have been plenty of blogs on this site and others promoting the value of knowledge, scientific endeavour, progressing our understanding, and more recently, finding ways to counteract the phenomenon of fake news and alternative facts. It seems we need to value education even more, so, when I see the headline ‘University chief wants to bring back maintenance grants’ (BBC News 2018) my initial thinking is, yes, absolutely we must. However, this is soon followed by a sense of despondency, knowing there will be plenty of people who will assume the country cannot afford it, taxpayers should not foot the bill and we should just muddle along and hope students just accept this is how the world works now. Well, I find this difficult to accept, in light of the wealth of evidence against this notion that funding higher education from the public purse is unthinkable. After all, we used to, and plenty of other countries do this. What is also clear, are the benefits this brings, that this is about investing in the future, ensuring a skills base for jobs which need this level of education and knowledge. To see this as an investment means valuing the fact that there are school pupils who have the opportunity, drive and ambition for a career which requires a degree, possibly postgraduate training and vocational training. This should not be hindered by their class, their parents’ occupation, and experiences of poverty and exclusion. We must also equally value those who want to build our houses, cars, offer vital services which require a very different form of ambition and aspiration. One must not be held as more value over the other, they both need to be supported, grants are part of this, but so are training bursaries, decent wages, secure jobs and valuing investment in the arts. Instead, what we have created is a climate of competitiveness, we see it in increased levels of social anxiety among young people, including students, and we see it in the rise of the gig economy. Grants would offer freedoms for students from a wider range of backgrounds to make choices based on their own ambitions, and not be held back by their circumstances. They would allow students of any background to choose to study from the arts, humanities, social sciences, science, medicine, law and business – without weighing this choice up in the context of which will guarantee a well paid job.

The current Conservative government have been openly and proudly advocating for privatisation and placing the burden of the cost not on the tax payer, but on those accessing the service. This is a very attractive political promise – to pay less tax creates the perception that people have more of their own wages, and are not supplementing those who don’t work as hard. It also presents privatisation as placing the provision of services with corporations who are more efficient, innovative and can invest money back into the service. Yet, the Community Rehabilitation Companies at the heart of the Transforming Rehabilitation Agenda have been bailed out to the tune of £342m (and counting?) (see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/17/private-probation-companies-face-huge-losses-despite-342m-bailout). Our NHS is under threat from providers such as Virgincare and US companies, and our rail services are constantly in the news for poor service and rising prices. All we need to do is look to our European neighbours to see how different it can be, if we just let go of this notion that paying more tax is a burden, especially as we face this burden in a different form – rising costs and stagnant wages, expensive travel costs compared to other countries, threats to job security, pensions and to our system of free healthcare.

The language used when fees for degrees were introduced by the then Chancellor George Osborne was that grants had become “unaffordable” and there was a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them” (BBC News, 2018). There was plenty of criticism raised at the time, and concern about prospective students being put off. This was quelled by the promise to reduce debt, to have the country live within its means and that young people would simply have to accept debt as part of their future. Yet, as predicted, it has led to greater polarisation of students from lower classes accessing HE, especially among the Russell Group universities, as well as disparities in admittance from BAME groups, indicating once again a level of disadvantage which continues in this arena. It doesn’t seem altogether fair to place the responsibility on HE to widen access and increase diversity if the cost of attending is simply prohibitive and becomes an insurmountable barrier. There is only so much universities, just like schools, hospitals, police services and others can do within a system which creates and perpetuates inequality, and doesn’t support those who aspire to improve their circumstances.

It baffles me that so many people continue to accept this idea that low tax is a benefit, when it simply displaces the costs to citizens in other ways, and it also means governments can support corporations and individuals who seek to pay less and less tax, to increase profits for shareholders. There is something wrong also with an economic system which politicians themselves benefit from financially and, therefore, seek to maintain the status quo. The same can be said for privatisation and introduction of student fees – despite all the evidence which shows this is not a good idea, someone somewhere is getting rich, is influencing decision makers in parliament to maintain this policy, and neither of these parties is concerned about what is best for the country and its future.

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

BBC NEWS (2018) University chief wants to bring back maintenance grants, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45079654.

 


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