The debate followed a high profile advertising campaign by SURHUL and a day of campaigning around campus which saw hundreds of Holloway students sign bed sheets, all of which will be sent to local politicians along with an official letter of petition.
The panel at the debate consisted of Students Union President Liz Owen, RHUL Vice Principal (Resources and Planning) Geoff Ward, NUS Vice President (Higher Education) Aaron Porter, NUS National President Wes Streeting, and Adam D’Souza, a Classics Student.
The SURHUL campaign is part of a national NUS campaign to prevent the government either increasing or completely lifting the cap on top-up fees next year when the scheme comes up for review.
The NUS “Broke and Broken” Report, published over the summer, points to some of the problems which would arise should the cap be raised. The report claims if the cap is raised to £7,000 per year, many students will graduate with a debt of over £37,000. This was discussed in great detail at the debate by NUS Vice President for Higher Education, Aaron Porter.
The primary cause for concern here is not necessarily the cost of the degree alone, but the fact that such a cost would make many degrees economically pointless. The “Graduate Premium” is the lifetime difference between the amount a graduate will earn compared to someone with 2 A Levels. With Arts degrees, this figure is just £34,000. If an Arts degree costs £37,000, there is a £3,000 deficit which will never be regained.
Another important factor, discussed by NUS National President Wes Streeting, is that by raising the cost of university education, the system is at risk of becoming increasingly elitist or divided.
If all universities increase their top-up fees dramatically, students from poorer backgrounds will not be able to attend university at all, making the system incredibly elitist.
On the other hand, if top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are able to charge higher fees than, for example, ex-Polytechnics, there is a risk of the system being divisive, with students from richer backgrounds able to attend the university of their choice, but those from poorer backgrounds having their choices severely curtailed.
Professor Geoff Ward, Vice Principal (Resources and Planning) represented Royal Holloway at the debate, and told The Founder: “If fees are increased there would need to be visible benefits to the student experience and significant financial support to ensure Royal Holloway could continue to recruit the brightest and best students from all backgrounds.”
In an exclusive interview, Professor Ward also told The Founder Podcast Royal Holloway is not amongst the institutions pressuring government to increase the cap on fees.
Students’ Union President Liz Owen encouraged all students to “take ownership” over the issue, encouraging students to continue to take an active role in the campaign. Liz pointed out that whilst she felt students should pay for at least a proportion of their own education, she did not feel her own degree was worth £37,000.
Student Adam D’Souza made a number of contentious points, prompting a great deal of reaction from the audience. He argued that there is an “educational elite” and that we should “stop concerning ourselves with our social conscience”.
SURHUL President Liz Owen disagreed, stating that the system would not mean an educational elite, but a “social and economic elite”, opening the floor for the audience to put forward their personal experiences.
A number of students commented on their own inability to pay increased fees, with one student telling of her own particularly emotive story, claiming her brother, a young boy with his heart set on a career in engineering, would not be able to attend university and follow his dreams if fees were to be raised.
Another student raised the issue of where the money is actually spent, stating she was “fed up of being able to get more Sushi than books in Bedford Library”. The raucous applause from the audience demonstrated the strength of feeling on this issue, and Vice Principal Geoff Ward promised to take the comments away with him. “If the books aren’t there, something has gone wrong”, he told The Founder.
One area in which all participants were united was the importance of this issue, the need for a sensible, pragmatic campaign, and most importantly the need for the millions of students in the UK to make their voices heard in the General Election next year.