Last week, disgruntled students took to the London streets to protest about tuition fees and the "privatisation" of universities. Frankly, I don't think it got the attention it deserved, but in an unstable world where the media is focused on the economic consequences of what Greece and Italy's political elite are up to, I can't say I am surprised. Shame though, because there is a lot that still needs to be said about this government's reform of the higher education system.
The protest was pretty peaceful and there were very few reports of incidents and arrests. Still, in view of the huge number of police officers present, I guess students wouldn't have had many opportunities to get up to any mischief. The BBC reported that over 4,000 students took part in the protest, and almost as many police officers were there to "protect the peace". I have mixed feelings about this. I hate violent protest as a general rule - I just think that it always takes the focus away from what the protest is all about but I also don't like to see heavy police presence, no matter how justified it may appear to be. I just think that the UK as a whole is a fairly polite and peaceful place to live where most people are decent, so heavy police presence has connotations which I don't feel confortable with. I know, I know, some of you will be quick to remind me of this summer's riots, but I still think that despite this unusual show of violence, it is a fairly unusual thing to witness in this country.
But putting all these thoughts of violence and police presence aside, I wanted to take some time to reflect once more on the student protest and what all the recent changes in higher education mean to young people. The overall feeling that emerges from the various news articles I have been reading over the past week is that the situation seems incredibly messy and disjointed. There is talk of the "privatisation of universities", last minute changes to fees, universities now dropping their fees to be more competitive, student applications going down, etc. There is no way I could possibly cover all these issues in one blog post, so I'll just focus on students from disadvantaged backgrounds and alternatives to university education.
There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in tuition fees will have an impact in the number of students from poorer background who will be applying to go to university - a view which is supported by a recent article in the Independent entitled "Tuition fee concerns deter students". This is a real shame, because ultimately education is the key route out of poverty. I am well placed to know how worrying this will be for poorer students. I came from a working class family, but I was lucky to live in a country and in a time where education was free and where I actually got the state funding which allowed me to pursue higher education. What politicians fail to understand is that for people from poorer backgrounds, the thought of taking on all that debt is a step too far. You have to remember that these are people who have no financial safety nets around them - no one in their families or friends that they can turn to if things don't work out or if they are short of cash. Add to this the fact that the overall communication of these changes has been pretty poor and dominated by sound bites, then you can understand why these young people might feel both too confused by the changes to understand what it means for them and too scared to take the plunge and send their applications in.
Regardless of what politicians say, the fact remains that even with the financial help provided by the government, the idea of starting working life with such a mountain of debt is a non-starter for a lot of people. The BBC has a really useful student finance calculator available online which shows exactly what students are likely to pay over time. I decided to have a go myself and the result of my own personal calculation is shown in the image at the top of this page. The parameters I entered to get to this graph are shown below.
It's all very well having a loan which is spread over time and which you repay as and when you earn more, but what I want to know is this: while you are busy repaying this loan, when do you get the time and financial resources to save up for a car to help you get the next job, or to save up for a deposit to buy your own home?
Don't get me wrong, I am not silly enough not to understand the economic pressures governments face - yes, I do get it, times are different and we can't afford free education anymore. But if university education has to be so costly, what are the alternatives? This is an especially pertinent question to ask when we all know that students leaving universities are not exactly "employment ready". They still too often lack the key skills that employers need.
I keep hearing about new announcements on apprenticeships, but it all seems so wholly and complicated. I was speaking to two business owners at the weekend, and both of them said to me the system was so cumbersome that neither would consider taking on apprentices. I was intrigued by their comments, so I decided to go on my usual web trawl for information, and took a look at the official apprenticeships website. I started looking at what they call "The Basics" section, and within minutes I totally understood what they were talking to me about. There are pages and pages of stuff to read, and after spending 30 minutes reading this stuff I was no clearer on what the system entailed.
Why can't we make all this simple? Answers on a postcard please ;-)