Beth Cherryman

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Category: Political Theory

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?

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Theresa You’re Wrong

The Human Rights Act is far from perfect, but proposals to scrap it are misguided.

The idea that everyone should be treated in a way that does not undermine his or her status as a human being adheres to our moral intuitions: people should be respected as people and in this sense we are all equal.  These two principles, the essence of the Human Rights Act and all Human Rights legislation, are what make it necessary.

Where problems arise is in its application. Theresa May’s attacks are just the latest in a parade of examples designed to question the Act’s credibility. Yes, it seems ridiculous to drive a prison van 96 miles only to transport a prisoner a little way up the same road, but then how far can a prisoner be made to walk out in public before his safety becomes compromised? How far would that be if his crimes were particularly provocative? How far if he lived in a country with a less advanced police service?

As a theoretical construct the Human Rights Act has to be general. It has to be applicable to all humans everywhere. Therefore, there will always be specific instances that seem to contradict commonsense.

I agree that to bring Human Rights legislation more in line with our existing legal framework could make its application less clumsy.

But the challenge of keeping true to the essence of the present Act is too great to warrant such country specific changes. The risk of political interference or judicial entrenchment prohibits it.

Currently, if anyone of us feels failed or unfairly treated by the British courts there is a process that we can appeal to for a second hearing. For example, where British courts have traditionally prioritised the right to privacy over the right to freedom of expression, the European Court of Human Rights often prioritises freedom of expression over privacy. Without freedom of expression, the power of a free press is severely undermined.

Moreover, should the UK break from the pack and bow out of the Human Rights Act the pressure for other European countries to get themselves up to acceptable standards could ease. That would be very regrettable, especially considering the promotion of Human Rights, albeit in select countries, seems to be this government’s foreign policy.

The Human Rights Act may give the Home Secretary a bit of a headache, but that’s no reason to scrap it.

The Nanny State: Why The Government Should Tell Us What To Do

Towards the end of the Labour government much criticism had developed over their attempts to influence people’s behaviour.  For instance, though implemented long before, high taxes on goods or services that were deemed ‘bad’, such as heavy taxes on smoking.  The Labour government took this a step further by banning smoking in public places.  Other instances like banning chips in school cafeterias or banning vending machines in secondary schools, in a bid to influence children’s’ diets were also instituted under the Labour government.

Such policies are paternalistic in the sense that the government decides what is good or bad and tries to conform its citizens to these behaviours.

Intuitively paternalism is quite offensive – probably this is where much of the negative response to ‘the nanny state’ comes from.  It is after all a statement of mistrust, or making explicit the government’s a lack of faith in people to make responsible choices.  At worst, paternalism expresses a belief that the public, as a whole and in parts, do not know what is best for them.

However, in some instances it is probably right to say the government knows best.  People who loose a lot of weight or quit smoking often feel empowered and find they have far more choices open to them now, even if the initial prompt to loose the weight or stop smoking was external.

Paternalism benefits at a personal level because it often seeks to free people from a situation that diminished their well-being or restricted them.  Far from curtailing liberty, paternalism fosters choice and individual agency.

Also, paternalism benefits everyone as a member of society.

It comes down to: Are we a group of individuals or are we a society?  Any rational being would want to be in a society.  Societies offer security, safety, cooperation, division of labour, protection, etc.  In society we are free to engage in our role as a human being, we are not allowed to simply act on desire but must debate and cast votes and live in the way society has deemed the good life.  If we were merely individuals then we would be reduced to rational choice machines, never able to debate what it is to be moral or engage in moral activity because we are too concerned in self-preservation.

But, to enjoy the freedoms of living in society we must necessarily compromise.  Your desires may be inappropriate – you cannot just go around killing people, or taking their stuff, or behaving in such a way as to make the environment unpleasant for everyone else.  Legal system expresses the values of a society.  We have laws against murder; if you kill someone we will remove you from society.  A heavy tax on smoking is similar in the sense that your smoking makes life a little less pleasant for me, possibly shortening my life.  Rather than excluding you from society, you pay heavy taxes as compensation.  In the same light, we make eating vegetables and salad easier not so much as ‘an incentive’, but as a reward for engaging in society in this way.  We might even give compensation if we are asking you to make a sacrifice or do something particularly unpleasant, such as giving up drugs.

Paternalism benefits us by making society possible and cohesive, and gives us agency because we are able as a society to decide what constitutes the good life.  We elect the government, and we can boot them out, or kick up a fuss, should they suggest a policy we dislike.

Paternalism does not take our choices away.  The Government simply nudges us in a particular direction.  To me this is much better than something like tied benefits, which seem to punish people for not conforming to the society’s notions.

The Government should tell us what to do because, as we live in a democracy (well, technically a constitutional monarchy), we are the Government!  We decide what constitutes a good life.  Paternalism seeks to give us more choices and agency, and tries to make society as pleasant as possible.

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.

Are There Such Things As ‘Social Rights’?

The press coverage concerning the British welfare system and how it will be effected by the Con-Dem coalition government’s spending review and cuts has dominated news outlets the past few weeks.

It has prompted me to question whether simply being a British citizen gives one the right to be looked after by the welfare state.

Who is it that benefits from the welfare state?  Surely the predominant beneficiaries are the working middle classes.  They have access to the NHS, state pension, state education and subsidised (at least for the time being) higher education.  Although, many would argue this is fair because it is also the working middle classes who make the greatest contributions to the funding of the welfare state.

This is not to say that the welfare state does not benefit the poor.  I do not see people dying on the street – rough sleepers, yes; I guess no system is perfect – but no sick and starved bodies lining the gutters.  Even a British citizen who does not work has access to NHS facilities.  The welfare state provides a basic minimum, or safety net, to ensure the poor are not without a minimum standard of healthcare, education, or nutrition.

Of course, lets not forget the State also benefits from such an arrangement.  Keeping the Nation’s human stock healthy makes for a more efficient workforce.  If productivity increases then this in turn bolsters Britain’s standing in the economy both internally and internationally, which is good for Britain (in theory).  Also, more people are able to work – I am quite sure many a politician has dreamed of full employment, but sadly since WW2 that dream has eluded them all.

However, the benefits given out are not generous and so much of the responsibility has been privatised.  For instance, although everyone is entitled to a State pension often a further sum is needed to live on and this comes from a former employer.  Benefits in this country are also means tested and this process can be made extremely hard and unpleasant, perhaps to discourage people from taking up the all the finance available to them.  The working middle classes get the most out of the system because they are able to take up the State services and their various work benefits.  (As discusses above this system also encourages people to work.)

The welfare state of this country thus strikes me more as a system of rewards for cooperating with the State.  That is, for being a member of the labour force.  It perhaps also fulfills a certain moral obligation of a wealthy developed state to allow everyone access to a basic quality of life, but importantly also the potential to enter the labour force to improve one’s lot (and National efficiency).

If welfare provisions are a reward, then they are not a ‘right’.

It appears to me that ‘rights’ are by definition intrinsic; with humans came rights.  The ‘right’ to education means that every human being is entitled to education wherever they are in the world, or indeed whenever they lived in the world.  All people past, present and future are entitled to education wherever they are whatever their circumstances.  Obviously this is not the case.

None of the ‘rights’ we enjoy are first principles: they were fought for.  The reason the Nation’s average working week is 40 hours is because workers held strikes and demanded a reduction in working hours.  Voters demand certain conditions in return for their input.  (The median voter is middle class, so it makes sense that the welfare state primarily benefits this sector of the British population.)

Maybe ‘rights’ are social constructs.  Because workers participate in the labour force and fulfill the duties of a British citizen they are entitled to certain things in return and these things are embodied in the welfare system.  So the rights equate to rewards.

I think this view is mistaken.  The ‘right’ to education is not enforceable.  There are people in Britain who do not go to school, whether by choice or because they believe their situation makes it untenable to attend, and what of it?  An entitlement is just an entitlement.  You can’t make people act in accordance with their entitlements.  Similarly it is hard to ensure ‘rights’ are universal.  Everyone has the ‘right’ not to be tortured, yet this ‘right’ can be forfeited for the “greater good” it would seem without consequence.

This is because ‘rights’ are theoretical constructs not social constructs.  As soon as a right becomes enforceable, that is, negligence or inaction becomes an offence, then it ceases to be a ‘right’ and becomes a law.  It is the law in Britain that children must attend school from the ages of four to seventeen.  If they don’t then their parents or carers could be locked up, or social workers assess their situation and try to help the family into a position that the child can attend school.

No longer is it a ‘right’ to education, it is compulsory education whether you would choose to be educated or not.

Human ‘Rights’ don’t exist; they are not tangible real things of which there are examples of in the real world.  They are ideals – the worst kind because they are undemocratic ideals.  They have no value because they involve no input from the people they pertain to.  I was not consulted as to which entitlements human beings are to enjoy regardless of anything other than the fact they are human beings.  Maybe this is one of the reasons they are habitually ignored.

Likewise, social ‘rights’ do not exist.  In fact they do not exist in a more immediate way than human ‘rights’.  There is not even a conceptual framework for social rights.  They are simply rewards for the people because they cooperate with the State and the economy (i.e. capitalism), and because the people asked for them, demanded and fought for them.  Indeed compromised to obtain something that resembled the ‘rights’ they wanted.

No one has a ‘right’ to be looked after by the welfare state.  ‘Rights’ are theoretical constructs with no bearing on, or value in, the world we really live.  That which could be perceived as social ‘rights’ is no more than the evidence of struggle and compromise between State and labour market to maximise efficiency and minimise dissatisfaction of workers and employers.

And on that note, I cannot say I agree with the drastic cuts to the welfare state the Con-Dem coalition is about to inflict upon the British people.  To me this does not seem like a good way to either maximise efficiency or to minimise dissatisfaction.  If anything I think it will only serve to widen the already substantial gap between the super-rich and the poor.  Further the cuts will condemn us to decreased opportunities for social mobility, which in my opinion is the most fundamental element to a successful and happy society.