Firstly, I think we need to overcome the old chestnut that is often referred to as the academic and vocational divide. For too long an individual has been expected to follow one of two routes. The academic route went to university and the vocational route went to work. The fact that both law and medicine, (two of the oldest university subjects) have always accommodated both routes did not have much affect on bridging this divide for other subjects. However, in this division, often faced when someone is about fourteen years of age, a foundation for the future is laid which can limit people's potential. I was disappointed to hear Deborah Meaden (star of Dragons' Den) say on the radio the other day that the academic route was not for everyone and that making things was an alternative to thinking things (my words not hers - but that was the message). Why can't an individual enjoy both routes?
There needs to be more university pathways which encourage and accommodate a form of work-based learning which provides the prized liberal education and development of critical thinking, independence and autonomy along with the development of relevant knowledge and skills pertinent to an individual's career objectives and personal and professional development. Perhaps we are entering a world where they can no longer be separated?
Secondly I think that we need to question any debate which only considers the value of a university degree in terms of its alignment to earnings. In the current climate this may deter many people from even thinking about studying for a degree. It is suggested by a study compiled by the Office for National Statistics that the earnings value of a degree has eroded since more people now have a university degree. This number has doubled over the past twenty years. However, although the increase in graduates may be seen to have a relationship to the earnings data, might it not also be in part due to the changing labour market and the economic crisis that we are all facing. What must not be overlooked is that graduates still earn a substantial amount more than employees without qualifications and over a life time this amounts to a considerable financial advantage.
Knowing that you might obtain a degree and not be employed is another aspect to the debate likely to deter the unsure from applying for a degree education. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that 3.5 per cent of students who graduated in 2007 were unemployed three and a half years later. Again, this is a worrisome trend but again may be more to do with the economic circumstances of the country. Arguably a growing economy would increase demand and absorb the graduate increase. We must be careful that the current economic breakdown caused by political and financial interests is not forgotten or absolved of its role in these circumstances. Equally, unemployment which is something which has to be faced on a very personal level is likely to be handled more effectively and more successfully by someone who is able to understand their specific circumstances in their more global context. An understanding that a degree education would hope to provide.
Equally, a university education creates value in many other ways. The personal and social values are too easily overlooked when only salaries are considered. Leading a fulfilling life in a world that is defined by change is a challenge for us all and we all need an education that equips us to contribute to that change. Money and its relative, materialism, are not necessarily a common good; recent events have demonstrated this quite clearly.
Thirdly, there appears to be an appetite for work-based learning. The Daily Telegraph suggested that the current climate has created an increase in the number of A' level students applying directly to leading organisations such as Network Rail, Marks & Spencer, Laing O’Rourke, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Grant Thornton. Nice work if you can get it but is this a limited option, available only to a few?
So, how about a job first and then a university education that can be organised around the context of your work and/or career? I say or career as it may be the case that an individual is in work that they would like to get out of rather than stay. This requires a responsive university prepared to accommodate the needs of a different population of learners. Next year will be an interesting year; although the fees increase it will be the first time that part-time students will be able to apply for a loan to cover their tuition fees. For the first time they will not have to face the challenge of finding the money for the tuition fees upfront. Instead they can benefit from the same advantages as full time students and need only worry about repayments once their income has increased beyond £21,000. The loan is repaid at a rate of nine per cent of any income above £21,000. Therefore, on a salary of £25,000 a year, an individual would pay nine per cent of £4,000, which is only £6.92 a week. What if I'm a part-time student? Direct.Gov
A loan to pay university tuition fees is not the same as other loans and paying it back is not an onerous business. It only starts to get repaid when you reach a certain salary and then it is only a percentage of your earnings. If you don't earn a good salary you won't pay it back; if you do earn a good salary you will be expected to pay it back - but that is what you would want as well as expect!!!