Certainly an extremely topical subject but are there better solutions than those currently on offer? And why can’t university learning continue as now? Solutions are required, and in my opinion this problem is soluble. I can almost hear “Oh Yes and how would that be?”

General observations

  1. All education is paid for in most of the world, and by the families themselves. Sometimes even the children have to earn the money!
  2. Children in much of the world are more determined than our young people to gain their education. In northern Ethiopia they often walk more than 10 kms to get to school each day – and I have seen crocodiles of them snaking through the land to get home each evening with the little they have to carry. They hugely value learning and the extent of their knowledge is surprising. They overcome obstacles as we must.
  3. Our economy is supported by borrowing on a huge scale. It is a pseudo economy by any measure, with govt borrowing out of hand (see link below) and our personal spending funded by equally huge borrowing. In recent years the govt has even been financing major capital projects with PPP’s – Public Private Partnerships – which simply transfer capital project funding to the private sector, or put another way it is all borrowed by Government though sold to us as a great way to get more hospitals etc. And our State pensions have been ‘borrowed’ as past NHI contributions have been spent, so future pensions have to come out of future contributions which is why the panic on pensions. All such borrowing is absolutely unsustainable.
  4. The levels of debt are frightening and there is no choice but to cut spending (see When to pay down the UK debt), Simply no choice.
  5. The proposal that students should pay for their university education as proposed is yet more huge borrowing – university education costs would be borrowed as well which would amount to a running £11b for the students at university. But as it isn’t repaid for an unknown period of time the debt involved is at least £30b – £50b. Given we are currently going through an austerity period, adding that amount to our UK PLC debt is very serious.
  6. We need to move to a society that buys what it can afford – so how good an example is it to load students with debts of £30,000 to £50,000? It is precisely what we shouldn’t be doing.
  7. Back in about the 1960’s (arbitrary year) some 5% of young people went to university (about 60,000 students) each year. In 2010 those figures are 45% and over 500,000.
  8. Over this period people have expected to retire earlier; live longer; have bigger pensions; more and more distant holidays; more university students; have gap years – and graduates had ever higher expectations of their worth. Meantime most global resources are running low and past peak causing prices to rise. Nothing of this is sustainable and it should be obvious. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand it.

One major problem with the system

We should consider the number of students going to university and the degrees they take, which may seem harsh to some. Do we need half the population with degrees? Do we need half the population not working for 3 more years?

Many years ago having a degree proved you were educated to an advanced level and in the top echelon of academic achievers – in the top 5% in 1960. Sort of – because many who didn’t go to university were just as bright but it was a meaningful benchmark. When half the population have a degree all it tells us is that the graduate is ‘average’ and no more than that. So now the university and the actual degree are required to estimate the value of the person with the degree. It is public knowledge that top business people find they need to further educate graduates before they are really employable, and I know many are neither literate nor numerate. It is a dreadful situation and unhelpful to all concerned as lacking those skills suggests the graduate cannot be well qualified.

When the old polytechnics were called universities it was inevitable there would be a big range of effective qualifications. It debased what was there. In order to accept half the student population, it doesn’t take genius to realise that the academic bar must be hugely lowered, and this also resulted in what many call the ‘Micky Mouse’ degrees. I will refrain from giving examples as it could offend and this Paper is designed to be constructive, but many will recognise degree courses that are not sensible. Degrees for the sake of it. It is shocking that some courses are offered, but even more shocking they are allowed to run for 3 years. And if the student body argues against this I am afraid they are arguing against a serious solution. These poor degrees debase the good ones. Some of these courses might be valid – but not as 3 year degree courses. They are vocational and should be short courses run locally. So where does this lead us?

What’s to do? – Is there a ‘solution’?

I have argued it is bad and irrational for students to leave university with a house size mortgage. I have also shown that the country cannot afford to pay the huge costs involved. So these are absolutes. I have also argued we don’t need many of the degree courses on offer which would reduce the national cost. Better to support valuable degrees than those that are invalid.

So often it is the simple ideas and solutions that are best, but the simple ones are those that often elude us. Let’s consider the objectives and try to find the best solution.

Objectives: We need to reduce the cost; not load it on taxation and provide seriously well skilled graduates.

Students spend between 3 and 4 years taking their degrees but much of this time is not spent studying and we cannot now afford university to be a social space. It is a great idea but not affordable.
Universities are and have to be centres of learning, and the better universities are centres of great excellence. It is a huge privilege to study there and students should make maximum use of the intellectual resource. You won’t have it again. Why would universities charge, and students pay, say £6,000 a year to party? A slight exaggeration but it makes the point.

So let’s compress the time taken to obtain degrees. There is no reason why anyone entering degree education shouldn’t be able to halve the current time and that is not unreasonable. I expect many will be thinking that is ridiculous and I hear some saying “I bet he couldn’t have done that so why should we?”

That is a fair comment and as I have made this proposal I am compelled to explain my degree education. It took me from no degree to a full Masters in one year. It was a huge workload but that was doing it in just one year and not the two I am proposing. I recall the course lasted 53 weeks made of 4 terms. Each day started just after 8 and didn’t finish mostly till 01.30 the following morning, and sometimes 02.30. And every Friday after lunch we were given a major task which had to be completed and the written work (at least 2,000 words I think) handed in before Sunday. There was additional work to be done through the weekends and lots to do through each short holiday. There wasn’t time through the year to go to a pub, restaurant or cinema so I agree it was a huge academic challenge, but the year was enormously enjoyable. I went to learn and one advantage of such a compressed course is that every lecture follows on closely with the previous work so everything is fresh in the mind. Another huge advantage, and the prime reason for doing it this way, was it crushed the costs of getting the degree. Not only does the proposal halve the education cost but also the housing costs – and in truth my social costs were castrated. The system is between a very big rock and an extremely hard place, so a quite different approach is required.

Here we have a prime solution which would halve the costs of getting a degree. Whatever debt is being considered – halve it. But it is even better as now what were years 3 and 4 (of a Masters) become the first working years providing income. It is likely the income from these two years would pay off the now halved debt assuming there are minimal housing costs during this period (live with parents!) But we must do what we must do and this proposal doesn’t burden an economy that cannot afford it and allows the graduate to have two more working years as well as their degree and minimal debt. I think that is all objectives achieved?

There are further ways the students can either avoid or hugely minimise their now smaller debt. Being serious about further education allows them to work for a year before they go to university instead of taking that gap year. Sorry, but the country cannot afford long holidays. Or else they can work after the two years as proposed above. And if 3 year courses were compressed to 1½ years – half the students could work for the 6 months before their courses start. I had to pay for my course which was a great incentive to take the least time over it, but what is the bad deal?

So often good solutions have unexpected outcomes and surely there is one here. By having shorter routes to a degree, those less able may be unwilling to take the more intense courses which might reduce the number of graduates. Their alternative of taking the current time will leave them with huge debts so they must decide what future they want. They can have a huge debt and party but that would be their choice. They can be equally valued by society but by doing vocational courses. I agree we don’t currently properly value such qualifications but we certainly don’t have enough skilled people in the country to move the country back into manufacturing.

Having a finance and retail based economy is not long term viable as there is no reason the Eastern economies won’t soon be taking over the financial sector – our biggest foreign exchange earner. We badly need to manufacture to reduce our balance of trade, but our education system is not providing our business and industry with suitable candidates. It isn’t even generating a population with normal skills like cooking which must be part of the national obesity problem.

Of course some of the universities won’t support such a programme as in reality moving all the polytechnics to university status was a bad idea. I am sure we needed more universities – or at least more student places – but halving the time means each university can take twice as many students through to their degree level (though more lecture rooms may be required).

Conclusion

Halving the course duration allows good students to acquire good valuable degrees without breaking either their banks or the national economy and provides the skills the country needs. Anyone arguing against this needs to explain themselves.

To the Students

I am totally aware and agree that the older generations have borrowed dreadfully into your future. It is a disgrace but we have also exhausted most of the planet’s resources and unbelievably damaged the atmosphere. Your inheritance is awful, but that is how it is and I cannot make it better. I am and have been trying, but most of the world doesn’t want to listen so you must all join the fight and demand action on all fronts, but demanding free or very low cost university education – as now – is not an option. The older generations have wronged you and the planet, but two wrongs don’t make a right. And the developing world is compounding the damage to your inheritance.

What you have been brought up to expect is wrong. Watching the younger generation shopping is shocking as you seem to expect large amounts of everything, most of which you discard years before it needs replacing. Fashion creates consumption which is exactly what it is intended to do. I have smart friends who shop almost entirely in charity shops, and some smart items appear that have never been worn.

The world is now a small space and products have to be made to last. Corporations won’t like this as they create ever changing products with short lives to make us buy as much as possible. We certainly buy what we don’t need.

You are the future so I ask you to respect the planet, and you have more power than many of you might know.

Mike