As a full, time, 2nd year Economics student, I came back to the UK to realize that the frenzy rhythms of our in-campus life, last year, have been substantially replaced by a far less crowded campus, fewer students and a significantly altered character in the sum of students who were admitted this year. The British Higher Education system was struck by an unprecedented rise in tuition fees, seeing the undergraduate tuition scheme tripling resulting in the exclusion of a great number of potential students from being able to access it. This considerable increase in fees, quite expected but still largely opposed by the public, had been on the economic policy agenda for several years and had finally become a reality. Quite ironically though, last year it was justified as a means of paving the way out of the recession, while the very first Fresher Week of the “increased fees” academic year 2012/13, newsstands are filled with The Economist and other newspapers talking about an important recovery in British economy. I can’t help but wonder why reforms in education have been prioritized compared to other equally potent economic measures, eventually leading the country out of the recession? Isn’t accessible higher education, for all sections of the population, a palpable indication of a welfare state? How are we planning on creating a sustainable economy in the long-term, if we do not invest on education in the short term?
Characteristics of the student body this year included far less UK citizens, while also a very large number of ‘developing countries’ newcomers. This, however should not have come as a surprise to all of us, since it is undeniable that the current fees scheme would have been unbearable for many UK households. The same applies to EU students, who saw the UK’s relatively ‘favorable’ treatment loosing ground this year. Overall, unofficial numbers state that approximately 54.000 fewer students were admitted. Taking into account also the significant numbers of ‘eastern countries’ applicants, it seems that ‘the tide is high’ for home and EU potential entrants into the UK system. Apart from the fact that the mere character of the student body is gradually altering, there is an obvious negative correlation between increase in fees and students choosing to pursue a higher education path. Someone could easily -but still naively- challenge this view, claiming that the student loan scheme for an undergraduate is still up and running. However, pretending to be an applicant for financial help this year, my supposed enquiry for student loans and scholarships has been easily ‘settled’ at the entrance to the students’ fees office! As an EU student, requirements for student loan were far too demanding and unrealistic, not to mention my (non existent) entitlement to scholarships which is, in fact, restricted to UK citizens only. In all, financial help for undergraduates is impressively poor, while analogous financial assistance to postgraduates and PhD students (at the same universities) is admirable. I cannot help but wonder, how someone not fortunate enough to be able to finance his studies in the short term, will reach the Masters and PhD level, where he could potentially be granted a merit (or non) scholarship?
It is quite common that we tend to idealize what seems out of reach. Hence, my first reaction towards the matter was an appraisal of the unknown to me, US system which was, in my mind, to be admired for its generous stance towards financial packages, offered to a wide range of home and international students. Given also that many good friends of mine received very admirable financial assistance packages (a factor which hugely influenced their ultimate choice of university), I rushed to blame the UK system. It was not long though, before I realized that things are not as ideal as they seem to be. Many instances of US undergraduates dropping out of university, due to the unbearable increase in tuition fees, have come to my attention lately. Notably, a South Korean undergraduate at a very prestigious US college, went back to her home country to continue her studies, because not only did her general tuition fees rise unimaginably, but, to take matters even further, her financial assistance package was substantially reduced compared to first year. I judged this to be as equally ‘cruel’ as the inability of UK students to afford higher education from the very first moment. It is something like smelling fine Swiss chocolate, but not being offered a single piece!
I cannot hide that I am rather confused on what governments’ agendas include on reforms in higher education, in the future. It seems that it is not a localized phenomenon, but quite interestingly a world wide one. Sometimes, I tend to believe that I was given a place to a quite ‘elitist’ higher education system, and possibly, due to the fact that people I meet in academic forums, such as student conferences, come from similar backgrounds, that I am safe enough in this ‘bubble’ I have created for myself. Quite often I say that I hate comparing incomparable situations, that’s why I do not want to refer to the massively discussed issue, of people in Africa and many other underdeveloped areas not having access to higher education, and that accordingly, I should not complain at all. Do not misjudge me, rushing to think that I do not sympathize with movements encouraging ‘education for all’, but I think it is equally infuriating when many people of my age, of the same cultural and social background, in which I grew up, will not have access to higher education, because in 2012, they cannot afford it.
I regret acknowledging the commercialized nature that education has adopted in our era, an assumption, which can easily be concealed by the glorious façade of our universities. I also regret saying that higher education in the UK is not simply the splendid academic buildings, centers of multiculturalism, and student enthusiasm about learning; go to the UK’s provinces, on the outskirts of London, people of my age are building up their future by attending a short term seminar on some technical job, then managing somehow to find a job and then possibly marrying and having children, before 25.
I repeat, in the UK of 2012, young people’s prospects, outside higher education, are that restricted. Obviously, if you have no possible means of affording higher education this seems like a quite optimistic path to follow. Notice that only in my small suburban area (more village-like), we have 5 or more hairdressers, numerous ‘handy-men’ and plumbers and an amazing number of real estate agents (many of whom have never studied for their chosen professions.) I was thinking, therefore, that this could possibly be a hint of a well-organized, long-term states’ plan to lessen the surplus of ‘highly skilled’ employees, targeting to find a well-paid job at some third sector (services) occupation, by diverting them to the secondary and primary sector, where specialization, in-depth education and expertise are not necessarily needed. This could just be a rational economic explanation, given the very evident ‘crowding out’ of many applicants competing for few positions in highly priced jobs. Excluding people from higher education, from the very start of their potential career could be a potent way of shaping their mentalities as such that they are eventually satisfied with their averagely paid professional status.
The UK however is not the only victim of governments’ restricted budget for higher education. In countries such as Greece, where higher education is entirely free, and applicants are admitted to universities through a very harsh and demanding selection procedure, reforms include the abolition of the free supply of textbooks to students. Many students, although studying in very prestigious national schools, cannot really bear the burden of buying their textbooks, given also that when they were admitted their parents were not planning on such expenses. Thus, an indirect barrier is raised, hindering the continuation of their studies. Equally worrying is the classification of universities of countries like Argentina and France, where a free, national system of higher education is coexisting with a well-paid private system, sometimes with the latter overshadowing the former. Additionally, the national higher education scheme is associated with severe inefficiencies and other anomalies, which indirectly push students to choosing private schools, hoping that the high financial burden they will suffer will soon be outweighed by their quick and productive academic career in private institutions. Hence, another sign that higher education is gradually becoming ‘good for the few’, only.
Clearly putting a face value on higher education is impossible, but it seems to me, that, still, it could be somewhat feasible by pricing the professional prospects a university is offering to its students, at a latter stage. On that basis, the well-known system of ‘rankings’ can be justified, an initiative clearly enforcing the interdependence of universities and the jobs market. If you observe these famous ranking tables, the more elitist (hence expensive) a school is, the higher its ranking. Accordingly, the better the reputation of a school, the more justified the highly valued ‘pricing’ of its academic services. Possibly the ranking systems has been created by the universities for the universities themselves, given that, very naively, an incredible number of potential undergraduates pays extreme attention to universities classification. And quite unarguably, students are ‘clients’ of universities, which in this case adopt private market strategies to attract the public. Thus, we have another feature of a higher education system, which very tightly hinges upon, not only governmental decisions, but also the free market’s evaluation of its services.
In conclusion, I am aware of the degree of disillusionment I am provoking to my readers through the aforementioned glimpse at different higher education systems. I shall admit I am rather worried myself, as to why higher education is becoming so exclusive to these sections of the population who can support a rather high expense of educating their children. My grandparents in Greece, would have said “You know sweetheart, not everyone is meant to be a scientist or an academic in this world”. But I cannot help feeling that undergraduate institutions are somewhat unfair in their selection of students, when I am sitting in amphitheaters and glimpsing at students who are online shopping Prada, Chanel and Jimmy Choo, while their UK counterparts in the same lecture are squeezing two or more part time jobs between their academic schedule to barely cover their university expenses. I cannot but severely question the ability of a higher education system to filter its participants, when very wealthy students are paying to have their essays done, while others would have craved for this chance to acquire expertise in their chosen fields. I cannot but oppose a system, which is discriminating against its own country’s prospective population of students, by preferring to maximize profit, as a means of attaining better reputation, instead of maximizing welfare. We are definitely talking about a moral dilemma, questioning what is the ultimate purpose of higher education and who should be entitled to it. Additionally, we are touching upon a very obvious and straightforward relationship between economic goals and higher education institution policies, either these goals are set by governments or by the institutions themselves.
Most likely, the majority of people who will read this article, are-and should-be grateful, for benefiting from a good quality higher education system, sometimes disregarding the very disappointing realization that ‘we are lucky to be here, because in one way or another, we managed to pay’. Because sometimes, if you are part of the few, you tend to take for granted things that for many others are considered to be luxury. I am grateful for the higher education I enjoy, but I want to be realistic; higher education is steadily being converted into a privilege, and it is not just an ethical question, it is an issue I am facing in my everyday student life, an issue of the people with whom I interact, with whom I exchange ideas. Don’t misunderstand me, but, yes, I would truly prefer to sit next to students who were admitted to university thanks to their passion, dedication and hard working nature rather than those, whose (parents’) wallet was heavy enough to afford it. I may be too cynical, but just like the motto ‘education is a right for everyone’ is campaigned in areas like Africa, I emphasize something pretty obvious but still neglected, in our westernized, supposedly modernized and developed societies and economies, that higher education *should be accessible to all societal classes. *Because, only then, can we talk about all-inclusive social welfare alongside sustainable growth and development prospects.