My my, isn't this a quick update? Well, I have my reason: Browne's review into university funding was published today. Protesters are mobilising, columnists are speculating and politicians are now treading on hot coal. Needless to say, politics is now very interesting.
With regards to the political situation, I'll be watching with interest, since I honestly can't predict what will happen in the future (near or far) and it will be interesting to see if the Cabinet have the mettle to withstand the tension, shouting matches and possible riots. Well ok, I doubt there'll actually be rioting but people are gonna get vocal. One reason the Cabinet is tense is because the members are going to have to deal with each other. Practically every Lib Dem signed a pledge to oppose an increase in tuition fees, while the Tories are mostly considering Browne's suggestions (not necessarily agreeing with them). Apparently various departments are working on the proposals to make sure they will be able to satisfy the Lib Dems enough for them to sign...fat chance. Oh and there's still the matter of satisfying the House of Commons, good luck.
If there's one thing that's definitely pleased me about the current government it's that they prefer to take their time, rather than rush. They're deliberating which proposals to take on board and are willing to hear suggestions from anyone. Nothing's going to be introduced until 2012 at the earliest (and even that is simply speculation at this point) so the protesters can plan their rallies all they want because they have the time to do so.
Having officially graduated just 3 months ago and with a debt of my own to repay (although I'd conveniently forgotten that until I started reading the reports about this) I obviously have my own opinions.
One thing Browne proposes is to completely get rid of the cap on tuition fees. I, too, recoiled in horror about this when first learning of it, but there are wider implications. He feels the British University system would benefit from a market system, with most of their income coming from students and patrons instead of the state. With the freedom to charge whatever they want, they have the responsibility and obligation to offer value for money, otherwise they could be forced to shut down, get taken over, or to reform/downgrade themselves. Now that honestly isn't such a bad thing because we've all known for a long time that there are too many universities. Let a number get shut down, good riddance! But on the other hand (and there's always a flipside) certain elitist universities might get it in their heads to spend a great chunk of money collected from students on building projects and snazzy new facilities that aren't actually vital (as has been the criticism in America). Well there's a solution to this too! It's understandable that the government seeks to reduce the funding to universities (I'm sure taxpayers would prefer their money finance more useful things than the subsidisation of thousands of drunken, drugged-up, sexually promiscuous young adults' lifestyles that add to the strain of the NHS) but in order to keep some kind of regulation on the universities the funding allowed should be just enough that the government retains a say in how the universities are run. They'll need to be properly evaluated as a matter of course. If it's found the universities charge far too much for poor returns and support then the government can shut them down.
Browne predicts that with the cap lifted most courses will cost something like £5000-£7000 a year, depending on both course and university (naturally), but I'm sure Oxford won't hesitate to charge £12k for its law course, I hear it's pretty competitive. Prospective students and their families won't like hearing this because they fear rising debt and monetal drainage. But the poor will continue to get grants and bursaries, it's the middle classes that are complaining. One key complaint is that they're (or we're) being treated like they're wealthy. No, the middle classes have never been regarded as wealthy (except by those living on council estates), they're simply regarded as being comfortable and really didn't need the child benefits in the first place. In the case of university fees, however, there are legitimate complaints. So the question is now, how to make sure the middle classes aren't punished in order to fund universities, as well as making sure there's enough financial support for them too, should they need it. The key here, is diversity, there will not be one system that will fix every problem. As part of the means-testing process, the amount of siblings in the family and their financial status (still living with parents or financially independent) should be taken into account, in order to properly assess the real disposable income available to a family. More universities should be willing to award scholarships to those bright enough regardless of class (and to make sure they're not awarded to rich kids, they could just set a really high family income threshold like £500 000 a year?). In cases of bursaries, bursaries valued more should be awarded to students willing to enrol in courses vital to the economy but possibly ailing in a university (like physics). I'm sure there are plenty more ideas. And yes I do think it's only fair that those who earn more after graduating pay more.
What's been pointed out is that a cheaper alternative has been becoming increasingly more popular: long-distance learning. Those who do such courses tend to be very satisfied. But there's a worry that the traditional university lifestyle could then wane and become a lifestyle only afforded by the rich. Really? Is that likely? Also, how do you define the university lifestyle? It differs depending on university or town (or course). Some people are very sociable at uni, being consistent members of 6 different societies, but then there are also those students who don't see any reason to not shut themselves up in their rooms and watch anime/play video games all day. There are also the members of a Christian Union whose idea of a good time is to have group meals every Friday and regular meetings for tea and cake. Not what most people associate with students, believe me. What I'm trying to get at is that if someone's idea of university living is to have loyalty to your hall/college well that form of uni-living has been declining for 2 decades now. Hardly any uni has a college system these days and most students are pretty apathetic about the halls they live in, considering they're usually left responsible for arranging their own fun. And if you're studying in London you're unlikely to be able to afford any.
In theory, university is the perfect place for teenagers to learn what it's like to be an adult and to grow up. In reality the university is a safety net of sorts, meaning some students never give their work in on time and see little reason to stop smoking/binge drinking/relying on their parents' money to buy DVDs and can never sit down and organise themselves. These days, the student who starts mature, leaves mature, and those who know no better learn very little. It's no longer university that makes the boys men, it's now the gap year that does that.