The Principal was on Newsnight yesterday evening explaining the £8,000 tuition fees that are coming in from 2012, along with rent-a- historian David Starkey and Universities Minister David Willets. It comes at the end of a day in which Vince Cable has claimed that most University positions are 'economically irrational.'
The banter was fun. Starkey calling for 'cheap and cheerful' University courses at a lower fee than those charged at more prestigious institutions. The Principal arguing that a graduate degree is a graduate degree and predicting bullishly that the distinctiveness of St Mary's offer will ensure that we continue to attract students. Willets claiming that access is the key, and threateningly reminding us that alternative providers are chomping at the bit to undercut any institution not able to prove that they're capable of delivering value for money.
He has to posture a bit, without some form of disincentive it's inevitable now that all Universities will set their fees high, potentially leaving the government with a shortfall close to a billion pounds.
I talked a little to the Level 2 students about the approaching storm. Most of them seemed to feel that as long as places were capped the rise would make little difference to the number of students St Mary's will be able to attract. HE has changed so radically in the last twenty years from when I was awarded a grant to take my place and in some ways the widening of access has provided many young people with an experience that their parents never dreamed of. The most devastating effect, however, has been the consumerisation of the academy - which far from raising standards has actually meant that some students feel free to miss lessons, choose what, when and how to study and still have a high expectation of a good degree. In addition the fees system has meant that many undergraduates feel the pressure to earn and therefore prioritise part time work over academic study, creating a kind of half way house between the worlds of education and retail.
I know it's a pipe dream now, but the grants were more than just an economic incentive to help students stick at their studies, they actually honoured the work carried out in the institution through a form of minimum wage. I'm certain that attendance, punctuality and productivity are all improved in situations where the provider supports the students in this way. If we're serious about a highly trained or educated workforce we've got to find ways to avoid the idea that students are consumer clients.