Beth Cherryman

Portfolio Site

Category: Education

Is University Still Worthwhile?

University Student

The uni years: no longer a given

They’re supposed to be the best years of your life.  Away from home, high on life, willing to experience anything and everything, and maybe – just maybe – learning about a subject that genuinely interests you.

But this year the looming UCAS deadline provides the focus for many a difficult dilemma.

18-year-olds up and down the country must weigh up the cost of a university education against its benefit.  A sum that only seems to get more complex.

UK home tuition fees have gone up a dramatic 200 per cent for students entering in 2012.

Increasingly the graduate premium is restricted to those who graduate with upper seconds, or  even firsts for subjects like law.  Even then more emphasis is being placed on university rankings.  If you’re unlikely to get a ‘good’ degree from a ‘good’ university is it worth investing 3 years and £27,000 tuition fees?

Then again the latest figures show unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds has increased by 54,000 to 1.03 million, the highest since records began in 1992, perhaps it’s better to delay joblessness for three or four years.

Reducing university education to a question of economics seems to miss the point, but the very idea of tuition fees unfortunately blinds many prospective students to this view.

However evidence suggests prospective students have been put off.  It doesn’t matter if, as David Willetts, universities minister, argues, the debt is only perceived debt and contingent on how much monetary benefit you actually receive from your degree.

Welsh Subsidies

Devolution has given Wales the power to offer generous subsidies to Welsh students from 2012.

A spokesman for Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Minister for Education and Skills, said:

If you normally live in Wales and are going to university next academic year you will be no worse off than if you had gone to university this year.

We do not support full-cost or near full-cost fees for higher education. We also do not believe that higher education should be organised on the basis of a market.  We are preserving the principle that the state should subsidise higher education and maintain opportunities for all.

A university education is still a worthwhile investment.  Graduate employability is a key outcome of the higher education experience.  Research shows that on average graduates still earn more than their peers, and are still more likely to be in employment.

The Student View

A quick whip round the Student Union bar at Cardiff University returned, perhaps unsurprisingly, the consensus university education remains beneficial but the increased fees will focus the choices of students with graduate prospects a key consideration.

Oh, and it’s not my fault trainee journalists permanently inhabit the bar.

Postgrad Lis worries that we’re getting to the stage where young people might want to think before going to university.

It used to very much be an extension of school and the normal thing to go and do, whereas now I know a girl who is very very clever but not going to university and I think it’s because of the high fees.

First-year Luke says he’s not enjoying his studies yet, but if he wasn’t at university he’d be working.  He says he may as well try and do something different for a while.

It’s totally unfair but there’s nothing we can do about it the country’s in debt and people have to pay for it.  Maybe it will filter out the people who just want a free life for a bit.

First-year Ed did not take a gap year to avoid the high fees for 2012 entry.  He would still recommend his course in spite of high fees “it’s worthy”.

I’ve got friends in the year below me and the fee increase makes them consider taking a gap year because they want to experience their time elsewhere before going to university.

First-year Daniel says university was a natural choice and thinks it’s still an important aspect of life.  He doesn’t view the debt as that bigger deterrent when actually at university.

You’re coming out with £20,000 plus worth of debt it’s important to do something with prospects.  Law, maths, the sciences those type of degrees I reckon will become a lot more popular.

Postgrad Charlotte has reservations recommending university given the massive debts students will incur, but does not think choosing vocational degrees is a way around the problem.

Just because you do a more vocational degree doesn’t mean you’ll get a job at the end of it.  If you do English you’re still just as likely to get a job in my eyes.

Universities Overview 2012

Combining the fees table compiled by the BBC and the university rankings from Complete University Guide and plotting them on a map it is clear almost everywhere is charging the full £9,000.

View University Tuition Fees and Rankings 2012 Map in a full screen map or in a full Data Table.

As of last week (December 2) it was announced that some universities were cutting their tuition fees because they needed to fill places.

Here are the revised fees.

For students entering in 2012, university is no longer a given but a carefully balanced equation and a risk.

Do you think it’s worth it?

Welsh Government Response To Student Finance Questions

I contacted Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills, with a few questions on how they were subsidising higher education.  This is what they said:

Dear Beth,

Many thanks for your questions to the Minister for Education and Skills, Leighton Andrews.

Please find your questions with answers below. I hope this is of help to you.

1. Why is the Welsh Government continuing to subsidise higher education?

The Welsh Government will be providing £3.6 billion to support students during the lifetime of this Assembly, in addition to the funding it will continue to provide to universities through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.  The Government believes that higher education represents a public good – one which benefits both the individual and society.

We believe it’s imperative that we stick up for our students and help them wherever we can and that’s why we’ve put in place the most equitable student finance system we’ve ever created.

We have a responsibility to Welsh-domiciled students, wherever they choose to study. We are preserving the principle that the state should subsidise higher education and maintain opportunities for all.

2.  Could you clarify for me how far this subsidy extends. Are Welsh students at English universities included? Are English students at Welsh universities included?

The Welsh Government will implement the pledge that no full-time undergraduate student ordinarily resident in Wales will pay higher fees in real terms during the lifetime of this Government than if they had been students in 2010/11. This will apply no matter where the student chooses to study, in Wales or elsewhere in the UK. Therefore the following tuition fee support will be available to Welsh domiciled students whether they study in Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland:

  • A non means tested tuition fee loan of £3,465
  • A non repayable, non means tested grant of up to £5,535 (if fee is £9,000) to cover the remaining balance of tuition fee charged.

The Welsh Government is not responsible for providing tuition fee support to students ordinarily resident in other parts of the UK.

3. Have you met with any criticism from the House of Commons for proposing the policy?

Higher education is a devolved matter.  Control of fees charged to students by higher education institutions in Wales and associated student supportarrangements for students ordinarily resident in Wales are the responsibility of the Welsh Government.

4. In your opinion how much should higher education cost the student?

The Welsh Government will provide additional tuition fee support to students ordinarily resident in Wales from 2012/2013. This means that students will be able to apply for a tuition fee grant to cover any fee above £3,465.

We do not support full-cost or near full cost fees for higher education. We also do not believe that higher education should be organised on the basis of a market.

5. Should all degrees cost the same?

The fees charged for a particular degree are a matter for individual institutions, within the fee limits prescribed in regulations by the Welsh Government.

6. In the last couple of days it was announced that some universities were lowering their tuition fees to attract more students. Do you think this is testament to high fees restricting access?

The recent announcements have been made by institutions in England in response to the UK Government’s arrangements for controls on student numbers.

7. What do you make of the argument that high fees will not impact on a student’s decision to go into higher education because fees are not paid up-front?

The Education Minister’s message to students thinking about going on to higher education is if you normally live in Wales and you are going to university next academic year you will be no worse off than if you had gone to university this year.

8. Do you think the opportunity cost of going to university is too high now, or are we still living in a world where the graduate premium counts

As important as the quality of the learning experience is to students, so too are the opportunities that higher education opens up later in life. In For our Future,we said that graduate employability is a key outcome of the higher education experience. This is an area where Wales has a good record. Even in a tough labour market, around three-quarters of people qualifying from Welsh HE institutions last year were working six months after graduation, and only six per cent were assumed to be unemployed.

A university education is still a worthwhile investment. Research shows that on average graduates still earn more than their peers, and are still more likely to be in employment.

9. What are your recommendations for prospective students? Where should they be applying, what should they study, or perhaps they should only apply if they can get into a ‘good’ institution and earn a marketable degree?

It’s important that students who want to go on to higher education are well informed about the options available to them as well as what financial support is on offer for them to access.

We’re currently providing all schools and colleges in Wales with a package of information to share with potential students. We would actively encourage teachers to engage with learners to make sure they have all of the information they need to make informed decisions.

We would encourage all prospective students to visit the Student Finance Wales website www.studentfinancewales.co.uk   A quick guide to support available to new full-time Welsh HE students in 2012/13 is available via the headline banner. A Student Finance Wales Information Notice providing more information about support for 12/13 will be placed on the website shortly.

Freshers Week

They wear Leopard-skin togas. They drink gut-wrenching combinations of cheap alcohol. They wander the streets in thousands, crawling out of sticky-floored nightclubs in the wee hours of the morning. Yes, it’s that time again…Freshers’ week.

Fresh-faced and delirious with newfound freedom this strange breed embarks on their university career with all the naïve optimism their parents, teachers or even the last Labour government encourages with anecdotes of “the time of my life” and promises of graduate jobs and higher salaries.

Three-years ago, that was me (minus the leopard-skin toga). An avid Today Programme listener, I was filled with happy notions of students sitting around watching daytime TV and mooching between bookshops and backstreet cafes. Don’t worry I was quickly disillusioned.

The workload is a terrifying step up from A Level. To get a regular 9 to 5 job seems like the easier option. Add to this the pressure of knowing that anything less than a 2:1 undermines the opportunity cost of attending university. Suddenly your classmates are your competition. Your lecturers are no longer a font of wisdom waiting to be tapped by the interested and eager, but a resource for passing the exam. The secret to success is ‘follow the syllabus’ rather than ‘follow your curiosity’.

I chose to study philosophy because I wanted an education rather than a training. I spent 13 years jumping through the petty and pointless hoops of the state school system in the hopes that one day I’d get to university and that all encompassing education I so desperately craved.  Instead I entered a world where university is a constraining commercial investment, the risk-averse succeed and the hoop jumping continues.

Don’t get me wrong. There are good parts. Critical thinking remains the core of many university degrees. In that sense graduates should be armed with the fundamental skills necessary to navigate civilised society; capable of debating how we should live and criticising established beliefs.

Still, I feel that my degree has been reduced to yet another qualification worth gaining because without it I have little to no chance of landing a creative sector job. But if there becomes little or no chance of landing a creative sector job even with a degree – as I fear we are starting to see – this business model will fail.

University education is confused. It serves a variety of purposes, but does not serve a single purpose well.

Reflection on the Government’s Response to the Student Protests

Obviously it is very convenient for the government to blame the few ‘protesters’ who evidently came prepared for violence.

The top news story of the night was Prince Charles and Camilla getting paint thrown at their Rolls Royce.  No mention of the vote or protest on any of the radio 4 news bulletins on Thursday.

It is also very convenient for the Tories to let Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats take the flack.

Cameron is trying to insight a moral panic by condemning “troublesome youths” or “thugs”, but actually this approach does not seem to be proving that effective.  (It has always puzzled me that policy makers systematically ostracise an entire sector of society, namely, ‘youths’.  Inventing phenomena like ‘mugging’ or sinister cultural references like ‘hoodies’ or ‘hip-hop rap’.  It’s ridiculous.  What do they gain by doing this?)

The argument that now students have to pay so much for their education, universities will have to step up their game to meet the new standard demanded by these consumers is, I think, flawed.  Currently universities can charge what they like to international students, and they so many applicants per place without altering any standards.  This is evidence that they can carry on as they are and they will still get the required number of applicants.

If I was entering university in 2012, I’m really not sure whether I’d think it was worth it. I would have to some complicated utility calculations.  In all probability I’d decide on something like law or medicine or a science – vocational.  Certainly I’d feel restrictions.  What is the point of going to university to study something you’re not really interested in just because you think it will increase your job prospects?  (Especially if it costs over £50,000 to do so.)

I only decided on what I’d like to do for a living, journalism, after contributing to student papers extra to my philosophy course at LSE.  Would I have the luxury to leave such decisions until I found something I truly enjoyed under this new system?  I doubt it because I would always feel the pressure to justify each choice I make in terms of the end-goal: a job that pays enough to be comfortable minus tax and graduate tax (and this is probably easier if I avoid the highest tax bracket).

As for access, the proposed new scheme will put lower middle class people off going to university – and rightly so – it won’t pay them to go anymore.  Except for personal growth, oh and because education benefits everyone in a society – the more people educated the better, but evidently policy-makers don’t care about that anymore.

Saying that you won’t have to pay anything up front does not change the fact that you will have to pay it back eventually, and it might take the rest of your working life to do so!

The fundamental problem with a graduate tax, in my opinion, is that you’re essentially buying before you know what you’re buying.  Like in the vote that passed last Thursday; MPs were voting on something that had not been finalised, that was still very much subject to change.  We don’t know what the actual policy is going to be, we won’t until January.  Similarly, we don’t know when we enter university if it is the right move for us, if we’ll enjoy it, if we will earn more overall because we went, etc.  The whole principle of graduate tax rest on a set of assumptions that are, moreover, by no means universal.

Why exactly does the burden of the deficit have to be pushed onto the shoulders of teenagers and children with no money or property?  They are entirely innocent in the creation of the deficit.  How is starting out in life in debt fair?  Of course the very wealthy will not have to worry about that.  To me this system reeks of elitism.

Why I was at the Student Protests

I do not agree that education is a ‘right’.  Actually, as I have talked about before, I do not think ‘rights’ are real tangible things that one can demand.

But, moreover, I do not think education is a privilege.  I think it benefits society as a whole to have a population that has been taught to read, write and think independently.  And if it happens that these skills seem to be only learned in higher education then it benefits society to send as many people to university as want to go.

Specifically I was demonstrating against the cuts to Humanities and Social Science subject departments, which undermine their value to, for and in society.

I was also demonstrating against raising tuition fees to £9,000 because instead of alleviating the financial trouble universities are in this raise is to compensate for teaching cuts.  Further cuts to research, I assume, will have to be picked up by the university (at least for Social Science and Humanities departments).

My degree is a public good and as such the public should pick up the tab.  It is not even the figures for me that are the important issue: it is the principle at stake.

When I have graduated I will pay my taxes, which will contribute to someone else’s university education.  Progressive taxation means that the highest earning graduates pay back more in taxes than lower earning graduates.  There is no reason to complicate things further with a new graduate tax.

In a wider context I believe higher education should be free and accessible to all.  There should be no separate private schools.  If people would like to make greater financial contributions to their children’s school, great, but the benefit should be shared out and help those pupils whose parents cannot make such contributions.  Bring State schools up to the standard of private schools.  Give everyone an equal opportunity to get a place at university – to get a place at a reputable university.  I am not saying there should be no competition for places at institutions like Oxbridge, LSE, or Imperial, etc. but that the amount of money your parents have doesn’t determine your chances of getting into these institutions.

I realise it is hard to maintain equal opportunity.  Parents who earn more are often happy to advantage their children in order to maximise their children’s chances of living comfortably and happily, for instance, sending them to a private school where there is almost a guarantee the children will leave with good grades.  The situation exacerbates.  The divide between rich and poor widens.  Leveling the playing field doesn’t really matter because it will still be the case that some parents will be richer than others and the cycle can start all over again.

The current system does not work though and only breeds inequality.  State schools are schools in name only.  They merely baby-sit children so their parents can go to work.  Teaching only the National Curriculum (national minimum) and how to pass the particular exam.

A person’s chance of getting into a top British university can be determined before they leave primary school.  Many people who were cleverer than me in my classes at school are not at university because their parents were not as encouraging as mine, or the idea of just £25, 000 debt was enough to put them off (I wonder what a debt of £50,000 will do).

Take the onus off education as a business and value it as an intrinsic good.  Not only does education benefit all of society, education is good in and of itself.

What the Foucault! Social science is not self-indulgent

The coalition government (though by no means every Lib-Dem) has voted to raise tuition fees to a maximum of £9000, cut EMA maintenance grants for school/6th form students, and to cut teaching grants.

The exact damage will not be known until January – giving university departments only a few months to decide their fee levels for Easter, in time for those entering university in 2012 to have access to that information.

However the likelihood is that Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences will be worst hit.  The London School of Economics (LSE) expects to loose 100% of its teaching grants.  I expect LSE will be raising its fees to the maximum level (in line with Oxbridge).

LSE is after all a business, a successful one at that, currently running at approximately £19m surplus.  This money is completely separate from the £37m they just spent on buying yet another property in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (the Land Registry Office building).

For a long time, I believe it has been the desire of the LSE Committee (highest decision making body of the School) to increase fees for home students.  In fact Sir Howard Davis (Director of LSE; N.B. Director not Dean) has often argued that it is unfair to charge international students so much to subsidise home/EU students.  It would be far fairer to increase everyone’s fees.  Not that LSE has really suffered a great loss by taking on Home students; after all they only make up 20% on the student body.

As under this policy decision my degree ‘BSc Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method’ is no longer considered a public good, I would just very briefly like to outline why it is.

Firstly, I have learned how to read and write.  Perhaps readers of this blog belonging to the generations before mine will not understand the significance of this point – didn’t I learn that at primary school?

No, it actually took a year and a half of university education to learn how to read.  That is, to be active, to engage, to be critical, to follow the argument of the author, to tackle difficult and long texts picking up on the key points.  The same goes for writing.

It is true these are skills I could well have learned at Upper School or 6th Form, but the fact of the matter is that these skills are not really present on the National Curriculum and as a consequence go untaught at least in State Schools.  I think one reason it is a requirement of so many jobs to have a degree is simply because they want employees with the basic skill set of being able to read and write.  Perhaps if education of four to eighteen year olds was improved in this respect fewer people would need to go onto higher education to acquire them – there are your cuts Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne.

Secondly, I am now a “qualified thinker” in the words of my former A Level chemistry teacher.  This again might seem like a ridiculous point.  Why should I go to university and spend thousands of the UK taxpayer’s pounds to learn how to do something anyone can do anyway?  And the answer is, again, thinking is a skill that actually is not taught until higher education.  By thinking I am not talking about learning facts and understanding and being able to explain certain processes.  I am not talking about regurgitation or blind acceptance, but personal thought.

Questioning accepted norms and not taking them as read.  Doing this not only increases and deepens understanding, but also just might pick up on possible flaws either with the system or with the explanation one is questioning.  Why are things the way they are?

Why is it that most of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have Humanities or Social Science degrees?

Thirdly, further to the ability and willingness to question, my degree has given me the confidence to do so.  A confidence to look at something almost taken as gospel, e.g. the scientific method, or evidence-based policy, or the legal system and how legal evidence, which is reliant on statistics, judges the behaviour of one defendant on the behaviour of others like him in like situations.

The confidence to ask policy-makers: “Why?”

The last point I want to make here in defence of my degree is that by explicating and evaluating the ideas of my predecessors, I have come up with suggestions of my own.  The level above plain criticism is providing viable alternatives; I ask “Why x?” understand the thinking behind choosing ‘x’ but the ask “Why not y?”

In short, my degree has given me the tools and the confidence to scrutinise, criticise, and contribute to the debate with my own ideas.

Society needs to be questioned: as soon as we stop questioning we cease to progress.  As I said in the first paragraph of my personal statement in my university application:

Philosophy is a natural subject choice for me.  I wish to study an active discipline, where reason and logical thought are a requirement.  I love to ask questions.  I believe societies should be built on the repeated questioning of established beliefs and opinions.  That it is the responsibility of each generation to re-explore those fundamental questions which have laid the foundations of human thought.

Paying for Failure

Some schools in the UK have started schemes to incentivise their students to undertake an appropriate amount of work to pass their exams.  And indeed to enroll for these exams in the first place.

Blackburn College is offering £5000 to students who fail their A Levels.  Of course, this is qualified.  A fail constitutes not managing to obtain an E pass, even though the student had attended 95% of classes, met targets, and handed in work on time.

The idea, apparently, is to encourage people to sign up for A Levels.  That is, to invoke the prospective student with the confidence they will not be wasting their time – supposedly the school does not intend on paying out too many £5000 cash gifts.

Indeed I’m quite sure Blackburn College will not be paying out any cash gifts.  To me this seems like an ingenious scheme from the point of view of the school – they drum up participants and thus funding courtesy of the government.

While £5000 may sound an impressive sum to impressionable 16 year olds, who probably work for a few hours at the weekends for minimum wage, it does not strike me as adequate compensation for two years solid effort and work towards one’s A Levels.

It seems to me that Blackburn College is taking their students on a bit of a ride.

Maybe this scheme should be interpreted as more of an incentive to encourage good behaviour (even if it is in effect with reverse psychology).

This angle offends me more.  Paying someone to turn up to school and take non-compulsory classes – or more precisely tempting someone to take these non-compulsory courses because if they fail they get £5000 – seems wholly contrary to my notion of education and, moreover, the purpose of education.

A monetary bribe to dissuade bad behaviour is one thing.  While again intuitively I dislike it with regards to education, I suppose it is essentially what happens the world over in adult employment.  We work for money and understand that in order to keep up this deal we must behave as our employer would like.

But the Blackburn College scheme is not even like this.  They pretend to promise money in exchange for good behaviour, which leads to unhappiness or lack of success.

Surely I’m not the only one that finds such schemes (for Blackburn College is not the only school to run them) nonsensical and frankly just another convoluted and backhanded way for schools to get their hands on a bit of extra funding, potentially at the cost of someone’s current and future happiness?

What’s the Use of University?

University fees are going up, graduates’ job prospects are coming down, and social mobility is practically non-existent; so why go to university?

I think people go to university for four reasons.  Firstly because it delays having to get a proper job, secondly because it is relatively cheap in the short run, thirdly because they feel their school education was somewhat lacking, and lastly because they believe it will give them the opportunity to get a job they find interesting or well paid (or both).

With an increase in fees only one of these reasons will be truly applicable, and in my experience ‘to be educated’ is usually the last reason people would give to explain their “occupation: student” status.

And why should they?  It’s not like we don’t have an education system beginning at the age of four.

It has constantly puzzled me that one has to go through their entire schooling – 14 years – to get to a stage where they can be educated, namely university.

Apparently my degree bestowed upon me a set of  “transferable skills”.  No, that doesn’t involve a screwdriver, instead I am now able to read, write, and think.  Why was it necessary to wait until I turned twenty to learn these skills?

I do not really see what makes thinking and communicating so difficult that it was impossible to learn while I was at school.  Then university could be about thoroughly engaging with your chosen subject, and not have to essentially waste time teaching you how to express yourself and your thoughts.

I was told that university students were not expected to say anything original (I interpreted that as ‘have an original thought’) until they reached PhD level.  That rather points in the direction that undergraduate degrees (and Masters degrees) are not about education in the sense of advancing their chosen field, or even contributing to it, they are simply undertaken so the prospective job seeker can claim to know how to read, write, and think.

At this point I should probably acknowledge that degrees such as engineering and law, that is vocational degrees, are understandably necessary to enter their respective careers.  But these degrees, I would argue, are in fact training for the student’s chosen profession, and being trained is not the same as being educated.

The intrinsic value of university seems to have been lost.  With many desirable jobs requiring a degree, and humanities and social science degrees advertising themselves in terms of transferable skills, universities have come to be viewed as stepping-stones – good if they help the student find acceptable employment, but not good in themselves.

So why pay up and go to university? Because for some unknown and obscure reason university has become the new school.  It’s necessary because it gives you the basics.  Perhaps if schools functioned as schools, and taught everyone the basics, universities could go back to being for ‘lovers of wisdom’.  Universities could return to purpose.  Then, just maybe, devoid of all the people who enroll to compete in the job market there would be considerably less strain on the institutions and their finances.