The last year has been a thoroughly challenging one for Britain’s higher education sector. Not only was the very notion of expertise challenged by the Brexit campaign, but the Higher Education and Research Bill is set to enter the statute book, thrusting deep reforms on our institutions. Worse still, International students have been threatened with stricter immigration rules, and applications from this vital group are down. Further compounding an already bleak situation, the latest Research Excellence Framework consultation is seeking to assess all departmental research output in future, rather than the research of selected academics, placing yet more pressure on academics and institutions.
The higher education sector has always been an active policy arena, but in recent times the pace of marketization, regulation and commoditization has increased. With recent changes to the tuition fee loan system, inequality in education will worsen as lower income students opt for the cheaper and quicker further education system. This is a dangerous precedent, especially at a time of identity politics and the ever increasing north-south divide.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that we can fully reverse the 900% increase in tuition fees over the past two decades. But rather than dwelling on today’s uncertainties, it is time we look forward and decide as a nation what purpose we see from higher education.
It is my belief that the true measure of a society’s prosperity is not the towers it builds, the technical accomplishments it achieves, or the number of accolades its elite members hold. It is how well it provides opportunity, equity and advancement for all.
Providing better, smarter access to higher education is more than the first block in building a successful society. It paves the road to local and regional revitalisation, it builds hope and confidence, and it ultimately helps to bind the nation.
The Social Mobility Commission disturbingly reports that while educational inequalities are narrowing and disadvantaged young people were 30 percent more likely to enter university in 2015 than just five years before, only one in eight children from low income backgrounds is likely to become a high income earner as an adult.
Further educational elitism is pervasive in the treatment of migrant populations entering Britain, particularly refugees, who find the significant cost of tuition and the lack of access to student finance a barrier to entry. We should observe the lesson learned in France and Belgium, where migrant populations have been ostracised and forced into comparative poverty, stoking intra-community conflict, before excluding these people from our higher education sector. More higher education institutions should offer refugee scholarships, following the example of Universities like York, Warwick, Bristol, Oxford, the London School of Economics, and Edinburgh, among others.
It is partly the lack of higher educational opportunity which has disaffected British voters, and we are creating a two-tier market where less than one in ten low-paid workers at the start of the last decade had escaped low pay by the end. That is why it is time for us to rethink our view of the university sector, and treat it not as an expense but as the vehicle for advancement of current and future generations.
Not only do graduates go on to earn more, invest more, and save more, but they also boost civic institutions, reduce the cost and pressure on government services, and lessen social degradation. More highly educated citizens are healthier, happier, and generally more productive over their lifetimes. They are employed at higher rates, and rely less on government-funded provisions. They are also far less likely to get a criminal record or disrespect civic and judicial laws.
Reversing tuition fees completely simply isn’t going to happen. But a more realistic policy demand we should consider is for the government to reinstate an extensive means-tested grant system. We should also look at demanding a small increase in National Insurance rates, which could be used to fund academic research. Everybody would therefore contribute to the technical, medical, scientific and cultural advances brought to us by universities, and which enrich our individual and collective lifestyles.
In spite of these turbulent times, we must not lose sight of the value society derives from higher education. Ultimately, I believe that our collective genius will get us through this uncertainty as it has since our earliest beginnings. I believe that the building of bridges will dominate the building of walls.
Adam Kearns is Postgraduate Officer at the University of Bath Students' Union and a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.