Value not cost should be subject of higher education review

Isn’t it fun watching a political bunfight from the sidelines?  The Browne report has exposed the faultlines in the coalition, introduced the Lib Dems to the agonies of realpolitik, and reminded Labour what the point of opposition is.  Wonderful.  Best of all, a close vote on the proposals threatens to re-introduce the West Lothian question if the sole Scottish Tory and the 11 Lib Dem MPs inflict the new regime on students in England while their own constituents are unaffected.  

This is currently England’s little problem but make no mistake, it’s heading to Scotland soon in the form of the promised green paper on higher education funding.  It behoves us to take a serious interest.  So I will. 

First though, allow me to declare my potential conflict of interest. Yes, I have a university degree and also a post graduate diploma.  The first was paid for by my parents and myself, though my fees were paid.  The second was paid for partly by a hardship bursary and partly by myself.  And this was all in the days when higher education was supposedly free, pre loans, pre graduate tax, pre tuition fees.

Which is possibly why I am particularly bothered that much of the debate and reaction today has centred on the cost of higher education, rather than its value.  Surely that should be the starting point of any review of a higher education system?  Its purpose, and what we want our young people to gain from it, should determine how the system is established, operated and funded. 

Currently in Scotland there are 215,495 students in higher education.  Not all of them are Scottish of course, but roughly this equates to about a fifth of our near one million population of 16 to 29 year olds.  Apparently half of all 18 – 23 year olds are attending university.  It begs the question, why?  What purpose is served by all these young people going to university?  To improve our economy by ensuring the next generation of workers has appropriate skills and knowledge?  To give our young people wonderful experiences where they learn about life, broaden their minds, make the transition to adulthood?  All that and more surely.  

It is disappointing then that the current system is not really delivering.  Scotland prides itself on its egalitarian approach to education but it is a reputation no longer borne out by the facts.  There has been little improvement in the numbers attending university from deprived areas; only 7% of all students have a disability;  the numbers moving into employment and graduate level employment after university are in decline – in other words, graduate unemployment is on the rise; thanks to the student loan system, outstanding student debt amounted to £2.227 billion or an average of £5,765 per student.  Apparently, this is less than the amounts owed by students elsewhere in the UK, which is a small comfort.

In summary, despite record investment under devolution in higher education, access has not widened, employment outcomes for graduates are deteriorating, and even without fees or graduate tax payments, record numbers of young people are entering adulthood saddled with debt.  The system is not working nor does it appear to be delivering value.  Surely the starting point of the forthcoming review of higher education in Scotland should be to determine what our society wants, nay needs, it to deliver, what its purpose is, and what value we expect it to deliver for our young people, our society and our economy.  Then – and only then – should we determine how to fund it.

(Lesley Riddoch wrote a first class article analysing some of the problems and potential solutions for the university funding conundrum in the Scotsman – sadly, it’s behind the paywall)