Higher education debate rages on

The committee convened as part of an ongoing inquiry into funding cuts for equivalent or lower level qualifications (ELQs). Policy advocating a reduction in funding is due to be introduced after Secretary of State for IUS announced that funding would be phased out later this year. This would have an impact, for example, on a person studying a second degree in order to change career direction. In the modern labour market of increased competitiveness this is more and more likely to be a situation faced by todayÂ’s graduates.
The government argued that funding must be cut so to increase the number of first time students entering higher education. NUS is opposed to this as this decision could, rather than increase applications, actually decrease them along with a number of unintended consequences that will place the governmentÂ’s widening participation and skills agenda at risk.
Rejecting the premise that second time applicants dissuade first timers (a key governmental implication) Miss Tumelty continued on to argue that this cut would have a drastic effect on certain people, including women who wish to re-skill before returning to work and part-time students, who receive no loan and must pay fees upfront. It would also affect negatively the student body social mix and the range of course options, because universities would be forced to cut uneconomic degrees and reduce their efforts to widen participation from periphery groups. This ‘managementization’ of higher education is a difficulty all universities face, with some institutions having to be removed from their classification after being forced to abandon too many departments (this is an implication faced by Exeter University and others).
A funding review is already scheduled for 2009 and this debate is just one facet of a much wider dialogue between students, institutions and the government. NUS will be holding a second Great Higher Education Funding Debate on Tuesday 18th March at Central Hall, Westminster, in an attempt to formalize their response to proposed government cuts in funding and increase in fees. By bringing together students, officers, activists, politicians and academics the debate should hopefully bring some impact to bear on the wider issue.
All these moves from both sides come at a time of heightened anxiety in the HE/FE community. Rising costs and the proliferation of qualified candidates has put off many potential applicants, whilst those already in HE/FE face crippling debt and a doubtful career market afterwards. With university educated graduates becoming more and more available the ubiquitous degree has flooded the market and made a competitive world that little bit more daunting. To raise the issue even further the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) now warns that undergraduates in England spend far less time studying compared to their European counterparts. English students face on average 14 hours contact and 12-13 hours of private study. This 26 hour total compares unfavourably to the 41 hours in Portugal, 35 in France and 34 in Germany. With students now spending £3000 tuition many (1 out of 5 in this study) are questioning the value for money provided by their institution. The weak comparison to Europe could also have an impact on the numbers on international students enrolling, potentially reducing the £8000-£12000 fee packages universities currently enjoy.
Whatever the perspective higher education is facing a crisis that will have impacts that will reverberate for years after. It is up to the elected officials of the student body to hopefully guide the education complex of this country to an agreement with the government and tax payer to continue both individual student well being and a wider national competitiveness as we rush on into the 21st century.

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