Higher Education –A Rite of Passage?

Has HE become the modern day equivalent of the “world tour” for the privileged classes, providing little value to its students, and leaving them seriously in debt. Dick Evans explores.

The recent fiasco about the funding of Higher Education has again highlighted the Government’s lack of a long-term strategy on this sector of education. In spite of the financial difficulties faced by the universities they still continue to promulgate the 50% participation rate for under 30 year olds.

Many commentators have argued strongly that the figure is highly questionable in the light of the other problems confronting HE. It is impossible to understand how the universities could respond to such a large increase especially when one considers their current financial difficulties. Many people already question the current output of graduates both in terms of quality and quantity with issues associated with credential inflation and over-education. The latest confused and ragged compromise from the government will not solve the problem of the funding of universities and will lead, if the proposals are introduced, to a whole series of complex and damaging consequences both for the learners and the providers.

The predicted debts will most certainly deter students from less well off backgrounds and this will seriously threaten and weaken the widening access agenda. The people who have not participated in HE before are individuals who have invariably not wished to incur vast debts. Even the modest proposals to reintroduce student grants for families earning less than £10,000 per year are not likely to attract these individuals into study when they will still incur debts of over £15,000. The debts will take many years to clear with predicted repayment periods of over 30 years for some graduates. One of the great successes over the past decade is the increased participation of mature students in HE and it is hard to imagine how these will now be able to clear massive debts that could be over £20,000 in a time period much shorter than for the younger students. Therefore access will also be seriously reduced for mature students. The future of post-graduate study will also be threatened – after all recent graduates are unlikely to continue their studies when a debt of over £20,000 already hangs over them.

Student debt – Basic facts

  • 40% of students pay no tuition fees
  • 40% pay the full £1,100 a-year ! charge
  • Universities earn £600 million 5 from annual student fees
  • Universities say they need an extra £9.9 billion in funding by 2006
  • A typical student now graduates £12,000 in debt

Another concerning consequence will be the creation of a multi-league table of universities and other Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) resulting from differentiated fees and specific institutional missions that will precipitate fundamental issues about equality and choice. The university sector will become even more divided and include elements that are exclusive and elitist. The role of the access regulator who will determine which programmes will be supported and receive funding at varying rates will raise fundamental questions about academic freedom and surely smacks of social engineering. The wider consequences for graduates managing these HE debts are mind boggling when they are also being encouraged to invest for their pensions and old age care costs. The current arrangements are already causing major concerns in the minds and lives of many graduates who are on short-term employment contracts or are employed in lowly paid jobs particularly in the public services. Many graduates do enter the public services and now represent a significant proportion of the workforce. An interesting fact is that 25% of people in work are still employed in the public services in spite of all the reforms that have occurred over the past two decades.

The current arrangements of student loans have already produced some interesting changes in student behaviour and these will must certainly increase under these proposals. For example there is evidence of prospective students going abroad to study particularly to Australia and America – in fact Australia has established a marketing unit in this country to attract students where the standard of living is much cheaper than this country and the weather far better. This trend will most certainly accelerate as a consequence of these current proposals. Even more perplexing will be the impact on the Scottish and Welsh HE systems as these countries do not have any top up fees or student loan arrangements. Overall if these proposals are introduced it will seriously weaken the HE system in particular in England and will precipitate counter productive consequences. The politicians responsible for these reforms will be judged very harshly by history.

Clearly it would be sensible to write a more reflective and longer piece later once the final detail of these proposals are known and having been refined by the critics and the ensuing debates in parliament. However for this piece I would like to focus on wider issues associated with Higher Education (HE) and the perception of its value. The current debate raises some very fundamental questions about why so many people may wish to enter HE study in the future knowing that it will precipitate massive debts and may not necessarily lead to highly paid and secure careers. It seems that participation in HE has possibly become an example of a ritual or significant event in many peoples lives in fact an example of a rite of passage. Over the years a number of factors such as parental and peer pressure coupled with indoctrination from schools and colleges staff impressed upon people that it was the thing to do and was good for you. In addition successive governments have advocated all graduate professions in such areas as nursing and these policies are now partly responsible for the current shortages in this profession. Many excellent programmes were discontinued because of these reforms and a similar situation is now developing in social work. Already there is a 15% national shortfall in social workers with some areas of the country experiencing 40 – 50% vacancy levels and yet there is now a move to an all-graduate profession which can only exacerbate the current situation. All these factors seem to have generated a mythology that only a degree will guarantee a successful career and that piece of paper is all that matters.

I would argue strongly that other programmes located in the workplace with a real vocational emphasis would be more valuable than further increasing university degree- based provision. Because of the factors and influences cited above the myth seems to have developed that the degree is essential for a successful and fulfilled life. The neglect and lack of recognition of other qualifications e.g. vocational awards and non-university study resulted from this growing culture or belief that HE and university study offers the best opportunities for successful employment and life. Obviously many students often see university as a finishing school and a natural end point to their education with little thought about their ultimate career. This in some ways is an understandable human view but begs fundamental questions about the true cost and ultimate benefit to the individual and country. Obviously university life provides its learners with other benefits beyond that of studying for degrees including an enhanced social life which has now become the thing to experience and hence the rite of passage. Sadly in spite of increased participation in HE the key element of widening participation by people from the poorest backgrounds did not materialise. Despite of the worthy efforts following the Robbins Report and other attempts to widen participation the proportion of middle class people still far out weighs the lower economic groups in HE. Perhaps this rite is already largely related to class? One of the real dangers of these proposals is that a university education will again become the domain of the rich and privileged.

Hopefully the proposals will be subjected to an open set of debates and careful consideration given to the likely long term damage that these will cause to the HE system particularly in England.


“The future of higher education” DfES January 2003. Cm 5735.

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