Remember when students smashed up Conservative HQ at the thought of paying £9,000 tuition fees? Well, a new government white paper on higher education says that from 2017-18, universities will be able to charge more than that. Lefty students now have a new hate-figure in universities minister Jo Johnson, Boris Johnson's brother.
The first "stakeholder comment" on the government press release about this comes not from a lecturer or a student, but from Alex Neil, director of policy and campaigns at Which?. The consumer website and magazine can tell you which kettle to buy for your student digs, so I guess they're the people to go to for a comment on the world of academia.
According to the press release, "the new plans will make it easier to set up high-quality new universities to give students more choice" as part of a "rigorous drive to raise teaching quality and ensure universities focus on getting students into graduate jobs". It's also going to become easier to switch universities if your course sucks. And there's going to be a watchdog set up called the "Office for Students", to keep an eye on universities and make sure the new London University of Oxbridge, Crawley doesn't descend into a complete joke.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills white paper is called "Success in a Knowledge Economy", so I'm not really adding much insight by commenting that this is another step in the commercialisation of education by a government of philistines. The press release sounds like the flim-flam from one of the candidates who gets fired in an early round of The Apprentice when launching a crappy new product. Apparently we can all look forward to the emergence of some "high-quality challenger institutions", AKA new privatised universities. The words "high-quality" appear nine times in the press release, as if repeating that makes it so.
The press release also contains a comment from the Confederation of British Industry, but not from the National Union of Students or lecturers' union the UCU. But if you're interested, the UCU have said that it's "hard to see" how these measures will improve teaching.
If students are customers, education is a commodity and the point is to get a job, what are the punters going to get? Watchdogs will stop "quality" from hitting the basement floor, or at least ensure that a lot of box-ticking is done. Meanwhile, universities will be able to hike your fees past £9,000 only if they can demonstrate "high-quality teaching", so I guess that means a lot more arbitrary box-ticking and graduate job fairs. Presumably there'll be some more of the weird tension inherent in the student-customer role – stuff like being told off for not turning up to a lecture that you've paid for. And we'll probably see a new type of streamlined university that promises maximised results and minimal time wasted on things that don't get you a job, like a collegiate atmosphere or fun.
But if you're chucking out lofty values about pursuing knowledge and instead pushing aspiration in a "knowledge economy", then success relies on the economy beyond the campus gates.
Last year, government figures showed a decrease in the number of graduates in high skilled jobs – 43 percent were in unemployed, in low-skilled jobs or economically inactive. And the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development warned that too many graduates were wasting their degrees in low-skilled jobs while languishing in debt.
Thanks to this new government initiative, the same is true, only with fees going over £9,000, you can accumulate even more debt in the process.
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