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Tuition Fees and Cultivating Excellence – What Does the Future Hold?

17/12/2010 1 comment

I’m going to try very hard to restrain my anger in this post, but I’m making no promises.

In a whirlwind of activism recently, thousands took to the streets for the first time to express their anger at the Coalition government voting in new legislation which raises the cap on tuition fees. It was an incredible throwback to the days of anguish felt by those under Thatcher, and the anguish is set to continue via a series of new grassroots networks.

These new organisations, which include anti tax avoidance group UK Uncut and various “occupation” movements" (who are very active on Twitter), embody the prevailing sentiment of outrage felt by vast swathes of the population here. The cuts are deemed necessary by a Coalition government looking to roll back the state, but they are not by this new generation.

Even organisations like the National Union of Students (NUS) have been criticised of twiddling their thumbs in the face of this crisis. Their chief, Aaron Porter, has been accused of weak leadership, even pandering to the elites. As such, a vote of no confidence in his position is imminent. After all, merely appearing on all of the BBC’s coverage isn’t enough, is it Aaron?

That is where I’ll end with the neutral observation. I am gravely pissed off, much like these students and soon to be students.

Having officially graduated in September this year despite completing my course at UCL last year, I have been thinking about what someone needs, or what someone has to do, to be considered “excellent". What does it even mean now? This is, after all, the task which schools and universities must put at the centre of their mission and their duty to society.

Notice, I have deemed it a duty of schools and universities to inspire and nurture excellence. In other words; education is a right, not a privilege, and this is because the people who emerge from them will be working in society, creating new ideas, and ensuring the progression of humanities on issues such as democratisation, economic justice and technological innovation.

Thus, having educated people benefits society, innovative business and, something which is seriously overlooked, the critical thinking of a nation who is at the very centre of worldwide crises and foreign policy conundrums. Phillip Green wants to reap the benefits of publically educated people in his business, but not pay towards the very system producing them.

 

topshop-protest-philip-gr-006

“You marketise our education, we’ll educate your market”

 

Its a simple economic principle: maximise benefits and minimise costs. When legislation can include language allowing “tax avoidance” but not “tax evasion”, you will have politicians clambering to appease the corporatists who seek these loopholes. Leadership is impaired if, like you have now, our Bullingdon club of leaders simply do not represent the people.

Schools and universities are subject to government legislation, so the whole mechanism is meant to be accountable to their electorate (cue Lib Dem confusion). What we are seeing today is no accountability. The government want to privatise our education by making up to 80% cuts to the teaching budgets of universities. This will change everything.

By raising the cap to £9,000 a year, this will mean a total debt of £40-50,000 for a university education will not be uncommon if you factor in loan costs and accommodation – emphasising the belief held by the government that education is indeed a privilege. This is papered over by invoking the “nothing up front” feature the government are rather smug about.

Becoming our creditors brings them joy – how fitting. Only someone bred for power can feel this sense of entitlement from us supposed underlings.

Look at the state of the economy. We currently have the highest number of unemployed graduates for decades. The private sector has demonstrated an inability to accommodate the number of job seekers out there because of dogmatic and linear business modelling. That aside, lumping students with vast debt from the age of 18 will do two things:

1. Maintain the value of university education by making it more exclusive again.

2. Deter some from even attending because of the fees and the dismal state of the job market which lies before them.

It is, and I must emphasise this, no way meant to improve higher education. It is simply privatising it and loosening the grip the state has on these institutions so “they can get on with it” a la the invisible hand. It is an age old ideology, and that must be made clear through wave upon wave of bare-faced lies made by our government.

Thing is Mr Cameron, most of us don’t believe these lies of yours and your cronies.

 

tuitionfeesprotest1

Angry protestors outside Parliament as new tuition fees legislation is narrowly voted in

 

These two issues of tax evasion and tuition fees are intimately linked, if not by subject matter, but public sentiment. The outcry has been fierce because of a harmonious message: the cuts are not necessary, university education is a public good which requires public money, and tax cheats, whatever their stripe, should pay their dues towards a system they benefit from.

The feeling at the centre of all of this is a desire for justice and social responsibility.

In the speech opening my graduation ceremony, the vice-provost of the university declared, “excellence is not only measured in one’s achievements, but it must also exist in one’s attitude”. What surfaces within those protesting the rise of tuition fee and those who are outside the stores of tax evaders is this excellence of attitude.

A condition of victory for corporatists and the political elites who serve them is consumer apathy. We are currently being groomed to become consumers first and citizens second. The “Big Society” is positive spin for government cuts – we don’t need Wikileaks for that. By demonstrating our anger, we rob them of their greatest asset – our indifference.

Our indifference dissolves them of their responsibility to us as our elected representatives. We cannot be indifferent when they shape and mould our world as they please, to benefit them and their circle of rich buddies. By privatising more and more things, big business has access to new markets ripe for exploitation and the government has an easier job.

Our excellence is precisely measured by our awareness and our critical examination of events. Critical thinking is the bane of all elites, who prefer to keep it a dynastic privilege, if that. This is done by ensuring we keep one of our eyes fixed on an end financial incentive, whereas they have the freedom to entertain whatever means with their full attention.

To put it in the context of a student’s perspective over the Atlantic (who are basically living in a U.K. in the year 2035), I have a video to share. Here, Erica Goldson, a girl from a school in the U.S. gives a meaningful speech on her graduation. There, the free market disease has long had a firm grip on schools and universities and largely stifles critical thinking and innovation.

 

 

The full transcript of the speech can be found here

 

We all have a duty to future generations, but lets not forget this current one, our one, who is charged with affecting change for the better. Talking vaguely about what embryos deserve is not enough – we must act in solidarity to remedy the injustices in our society. These politicians must remember – they serve us – and we will light bigger fires until they accept that.

So, what does the future hold? Or better yet, what should the future hold? After all, it is our task to collectively shape it – not sit in the backseat. The royal family is not the only group with a stagnant gene pool; the media, the government, and big businesses are all inbred and self-preservationist. This will be their downfall as survival is achieved through diversity.

That is a natural law – not a policy.

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Debt Management to Become a Standalone Course in High Schools.

19/10/2010 6 comments

Come on, it might as well be.

Lord Browne and his team issued a report on October 12th detailing the direction higher education must go because of this economic climate. We have just seen a defence review today which is cutting 42,000 jobs in the Ministry of Defence, affecting RAF, Navy, Army and civilian positions. Where do they go? Who cares! Oh, you do.

The country is on a downward downsizing spiral because of the gluttony and risk taking from the guys at the top.

Our education system has long been identified as a sector in dire need of reform, yet has gone without the attention it deserves because of the turbulent decade we have just experienced. We have been involved in two messy wars, terrorism on our shores and endured a recession so huge the effects will be felt for many years to come.

What do we know about this system which is responsible for moulding the next generation of workers, thinkers, innovators, and moralisers? Its benefits include a tuition fee cap that normalises the financial circumstances in which one can enter higher education. Then there are drawbacks, such as the rigidity of assessment procedures and the linearity of teaching.

Browne’s report aims to address the impending spending cuts which will affect higher education institutions. The cuts, which will be announced formally tomorrow, will severely squeeze an institution’s funds for teaching and research, so the impetus is on the universities to generate their own funding through private means.

I agree with the purpose of this report – to reform higher education, and later hopefully secondary education – but this effectively means the marketisation of the higher education sector.

This is a kind of a big deal. For a country which did not even charge students tuition fees a little over 12 years ago, we have rapidly got to the point where we are thinking of removing the fee cap altogether. How can something as important as a fee cap, in terms of contributing to social mobility and offering something towards building a true meritocracy, be scrapped?

 

System not responsive to the changing skills needs of the economy.
Analysis from the UKCES suggests that the higher education system does not produce the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs. 20% of businesses report having a skills gap of some kind in their existing workforce, up from 16% since 2007.

The CBI found that 48% of employers were dissatisfied with the business awareness of the graduates they hired. This evidence suggests there needs to be a closer fit between what is taught in higher education and the skills needed in the economy. It also adds force to the argument for helping existing workers to enter part time study and improve their skills.

 Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England, p.23

On the face of it, all this means is that higher education must adapt to the business market and provide a business friendly skill-set. This is one of the underlying assumptions of this report, and one which it is guided by the will to massage the various business interests which would like to see students develop skills the businesses want.

This is vitally important. The question which is ignored in this report, and any report which first considers the requirements of current short-term gains focused business first, is what should be dictated by what? Should what we study determine the jobs which are created, or should the existing jobs created by existing managers determine what we study?

Again, on the face of it, it is ridiculous to consider someone graduating from a philosophy degree starting a career as a full-time philosopher. However, isn’t it equally as ridiculous (to add very unjust) for someone who has an incredible grasp of history to enter employment as a sales representative, assuming that isn’t their burning desire?

Business can never be allowed to dictate our education because a homogenised education system, i.e. one tailored to meet the demands of business, will destroy diversity and positively halt innovation, condemning us to endlessly trying to meet unrealistic targets which exist in some areas of the working world.

What about employers who value employees with unique skill and knowledge sets, who are able to contribute creatively, rather than mechanically?

But no, lets roundly blame the beleaguered education system for not producing them while largely ignoring the employment market which does not welcome them. Schools are flooded with restrictive paperwork from the government while university leavers have to endure the rhetoric of business interests. We are being made to focus on only one of the two fronts.

 

Quality.
Students are no more satisfied with higher education than ten years ago. Employers report that many graduates lack the skills they need to improve productivity. Institutions have no access to additional investment to pay for improvements to the courses they provide. In any case the incentives for them to improve the student experience are limited.

p.23

 

Why is that? Well, it is easy to see that the blame for a graduate’s frustration falls squarely on the institution or course he has just left, either by misinforming him about prospects, or teaching him self-indulgent skills which are not easily transferable. We never really look at the employment sector to identify the great disconnect between it and our education too.

Business must be put in the spotlight. Also, we must stop using the word “economy” interchangeably with “business” in the first place, as, rather cannily, “economy” seems to have this more inclusive connotation, whereas “business” seems to describe some arbitrary organisation apart from the consumer, and crucially, with little interest in the consumer.

All in all, just another marketing ploy the government and big business utilise to dull our sensibilities when faced with their simplistic solutions (to their problems). Before even looking at the outrageous numbers, the first principle underpinning this report fails quite astonishingly:

 

Principle 1: There should be more investment in higher education – but institutions will have to convince students of the benefits of investing more.

p.24

 

I have emboldened the word “convince” not only to draw attention to it, but simply to underline it’s boldness. Students evidently are not willing to pay any more for their education, but will be powerless if universities impose higher fees to generate funding. There are a lot of problems with this strategy, never mind the numbers it entails.

Firstly, government officials and the people who are behind this report actually believe universities will give their persuasive efforts some meat and backbone. Persuasion can always be simply that: persuasion. Convincing a student of the supposed benefits of studying at a particular institution could merely accelerate the growth of the universities’ marketing arms.

Secondly, every university already outlines, in paper with a high GSM, that they are incredible and innovative. Giving a university the freedom to raise prices like a business will negatively enable it to behave like a business in other areas. Costs will be minimised regardless of quality of output, and prestige will play even more of a prominent role than it already does.

 

“Increasing competition for students will mean that institutions will have stronger incentives to focus on improving teaching quality.”

p.48

 

Creating “competition for students” through a private market would be catastrophic for society on many levels. Incentivising universities with a profit motive will see profits increase at a rate disproportionate to the standards of education. When taking into account matters such as social mobility, vast debt, and regional insensitivity, the new model leaves a lot to be desired.

Browne’s report models fees up to £12,000 per year, with fees in the region of £6,000 being earmarked as the most common sum to be requested. However, they concede there would be no cap (music to the Russell Group’s ears). It is also conceded that for most universities to break even, fees in excess of £7,000 would need to be charged.

The government, the group who have produced this review, and the universities have all remained relatively tight lipped about the ramifications of removing the cap. Of course they would! The government can make savage cuts, the universities are given the freedom to extort their students, and the this group can add a popular report to their portfolio.

Everyone wins! Except us, as always. Lets live the nightmare for a moment:

 

Higher_ed_bubble_9-3-2010_10-20-44_AM 

 

To illustrate what removing the cap could (and most likely would) do, I have obtained a graph with data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the U.S. Browne’s review and the support it has drawn from the coalition government is explained by satisfying all the parties except the new generation of students.

By adopting more of an American model, we are in danger of letting universities, the crucial institutions which (should) shape employment, innovation, and aid social mobility, concentrate on boosting profits, employing even more administrators to do so, and lumping students with horrendous mortgage style debts before they have even begun their careers.

The mantra of it being an investment for the future is unravelled by our economic cycles of boom and bust which entail little or no job security. Our volatile economic climate is controlled by business interests, and the governments elected to appease them. Employment is slashed at whim, while credit ratings are protected religiously by incompetent regulatory systems.

My cynicism is informed by our neighbours across the Atlantic, whose free market dogma has revealed itself to be a bitter pill to swallow for society at large. Institutions such as Harvard charge as much as $50,000 (£34,000) a year, over 4 years, not 3. The total comes to $200,000. How is this justifiable, other than by regressing to matters of prestige?

George W. Bush, probably the most incompetent president in recent history (and beyond), attended Yale, a renowned university in the U.S. How? Through heavy private contributions – the same contributions we are going to be asked to make to fund our institutions. That’s fairness right there in all its star-spangled glory.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not keen for us to produce clowns like that, reassuring English accent or not.

The “Win-Win Situation” That Destroys Social Mobility.

20/08/2010 2 comments

I sit here a bitter man. Not because I have been recovering from a bout of food poisoning which has hampered my contributions to this space or an unexpected computer virus which compelled me to format my computer, but more crucially, unpaid internships continuing with no real sign of being reined in.

Graduates gain an experience and employers gain free labour – what’s the problem?

Unpaid internships ruin the chances of graduates from poorer families gaining valuable experience during their course and after they finish university. They contribute greatly to the very real brick wall that manifests as companies look for individuals who can basically pay them for the “experience”.

What good is it graduating from university with a degree which was at least part subsidised by the state through capped tuition costs and helpful low interest loans, only to emerge looking for a job in an employment environment populated by organisations who largely offer only unpaid internships?

The result of this process is the creation of two working worlds – one for the rich and one for the poor. Both the public and private sectors are guilty of this practice.

Below is the job description of a post I have recently found.

 

jobdesc1 …and make us a coffee. Cheers.

 

Now, that seems like a decent amount of work suitable for a graduate in their second role. The above is actually a position advertised on a British website inviting graduates to apply to an internship in the heart of Berlin. To compensate the graduate, a monthly “honorarium” of 500 EUR is offered to cover costs. Clearly, 500 EUR is not nearly enough to cover rent in the heart of Berlin, let alone the flight there and living expenses (nevermind actually doing the above).

This occurs everywhere, and nobody is really that bothered. Given the saturated job market due to the number of graduates, there must be some mechanism to filter out the applicants who do not make the grade required yet(?). This is necessary in today’s working world, but I believe the practice of unpaid internships unfairly discriminates against those who cannot even apply because they know they cannot afford it.

I don’t have to go to Berlin for such an example either, there are plenty much closer to home. With Thatcher’s realignment of everything valuable being in the heart of London and nowhere else, businesses have had to “go where the money is” and set up base in London, depriving the rest of the country from outlets graduates can apply to to practice their skills.

For example, a graduate from the North East of England who wants to start his career must be able to afford an internship in London to gain a foothold in their industry of choice. They cannot compete with those who are from London because Londoners simply have more opportunities to start and grow their career through unpaid internships they can afford.

This is not meritocratic; it is basically dynastic.

There remains little incentive for businesses and organisations to offer paid internships when there are affluent graduates who can depend on their parents to subsidise the “impressive” unpaid work they can choose undertake home and abroad. This is especially true in the nigh impregnable NGO sector where elitism is rife and managers tend to “revert to type”.

Many such organisations more recently complain of the economic downturn as the reason for the cycles of free labour they employ. Plain lies. I have seen very small organisations who comply with law by granting the National Minimum Wage, and I have seen some of the largest organisations make it explicitly clear they will not even pay expenses.

None are more guilty than the United Nations. Their internship offers no expenses whatsoever, despite the requirements of a flight to New York, rent and living expenses (a quoted sum of $5,000 for the internship in total). Not only do you have to pay this hefty fee to work for them for nothing, you have to be currently enrolled in graduate study.

This means the student will just have to have the money if they want the experience, with no option of working to save up for it available given the requirement to be already in full time education. Daddy’s wallet comes into play and the affluent graduate has their edge against the competition. If this isn’t simply buying experience, I don’t know what it. How is this fair?

 

UN Internship “Thanks dad!”

 

The simple fact is this: nobody should have to pay to be employed. When someone has parted with money to gain experience, a market system is in place where none should be. Of course the demand is high for careerists to scribble “United Nations” on their CV, but the supply of that experience should never be determined by how much money the applicant has to offer.

This is why interns must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage.

The employment process has lost its integrity given its marketisation. Tuition fees are capped for a reason – so the top universities in the country cannot charge more than the smaller less established universities. This is fair because admission should be primarily based on merit, not quantity of payment. Employment should operate similarly, but it doesn’t.

Whenever there is an avenue to influence, to gain and demonstrate power, and to accumulate wealth, the rich will devise ways to segregate the population and distract us with other problems. Powerful positions are simply reserved for those who have the “material pedigree”. Social mobility is intrinsic to what a democracy actually means, but it is lying dead in the water.

It must be said, the common myth is that social mobility has been in sharp decline for the last 20 years. This isn’t true; it has merely stabilised – not improved or worsened noticeably. The sharp decline commenced because of the free-market religion created during the height of the Cold War, with the unholy alliance of Thatcher and Reagan, its two most prominent advocates.

What we’re experiencing now is a “don’t rock the boat” approach undertaken by market-speak neo-liberals who are bereft of ideas. The answer always seems to be “charge for it” if it is free, or “charge more” if it is supposedly in high demand. The only market regulation which seems to exist is to deprive the poor of the product or opportunity to maintain its value.

Fairness is must be rooted in equal opportunities. It is those first few jobs which shape our attitude to life and help us identify what we truly want to do. When opportunities are unnecessarily limited at this stage, we “settle” for things we otherwise would not settle for. Our dreams become distant and naive, and we accept exploitation as if it defined maturity.

It doesn’t; it simply defines exploitation.

An old funny tweet created to rib conservatives goes: “if you have inherited hard all your life, you should be able to pass it on to your children”. Too right; here’s a load of money, my mansion, the keys to the BMW and your first job. None of these things bother me at all apart from the last gift enabled by our “job market” – that phrase alone is turning my stomach again.