The Coalition government has today proposed introducing a graduate tax to fund higher education in this country, rather than the current system of loans that sees graduates leaving university with crippling amounts of debt. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s something that has been suggested many times, by many people- most recently by shadow secretary for education, Ed Balls.
But let’s not dwell on that. After all, it’s surely a good thing if the government accepts it when the opposition has a good idea? Anyway, that’s not my point here. My point is the compromise that is inherent in any coalition, and in particular a coalition between such polar opposites as the Tories and the Lib Dems. Every achievement that one side makes is tempered by an achievement of the other. Or rather, every concession the Lib Dems manage is tempered by some crazy rubbish that I sincerely hope comes from the other side.
Take the student finance, for example. Along with the graduate tax idea (which I welcome, as I did when Mr Balls suggested it), the announcement contains suggestions of all manner of things, including shortening degrees to two years. I’m not sure how many degrees this would actually apply to, but I can’t think of many where it would be a good idea. I’m a law student, about to go into my second year. Now, I know I didn’t really shout too much about it, but I had my exams a few months ago. And they were hard.
The stress that I went through this year, and last year, is largely due to the massive quantity of “stuff” I have to learn and remember. It might not seem like it, but there really is a lot to learn in Law. And I’m not nearly arrogant enough to assume that other courses aren’t the same. My point is that the stress levels, and the amount of material covered is at the limits of what is manageable. If you reduce course duration to two years, one of two things will happen: either the rate of stress-related breakdowns will increase, or the standard of graduates will fall. Neither of which seems desirable.
And that’s not to mention the potential for forming a two tiered education system, which seems to be something the Tories quite like the idea of. If both two and three-year courses are offered, at different prices, you’ll end up with those whose families happen to be rich enough to afford it getting the higher standard three-year education, and those whose families aren’t so well off having to settle for two-year “basics” degrees.
Now, there’s already a divide between the education that the rich and the poor receive, under the current system. A graduate tax would do a lot to allieviate that, as money wouldn’t be the primary obstacle for students from a poorer background, but rather they would be judged on academic ability.
A double standard of education based on wealth would destroy any benefit there, however. And it’s not just that it’s against the interests of social justice. It’s quite clearly against the interests of the country as a whole. What the public seems to misunderstand, and certain politicians are keen to encourage them to, is that students are not a drain on the taxpayer. They are an investment, by the country. Yes, it requires money from the taxpayers to educate them, but who gets the benefits? Who gets treated by the doctors trained at our universities? Who is defended by the lawyers? Who is going to rely on the graduates of the future?
I’m not even going to answer that for you. It’s just galling that I’m forced to watch every sensible, liberal, progressive suggestion that is made by this coalition of contradictions, be checked by some conservative, reactionary nonsense. What our economy is going to need as it crawls out of recession is not less jobs, nor smart and capable people excluded from the education which would benefit them and the country, simply because they weren’t lucky enough to be born into money.