EDUCATION: A DEGREE OF THOUGHT

September 21, 2012 1:51 pm

There are two things in Downing Street that are unbalanced: the budget and the Liberals. A tragic confluence of both has been the catalyst for a spate of student protests about tuition fees.

More money. Everyone wants more money. But what many seem to forget amidst the throes of their protestations is that we have a massive budget deficit and the cupboards at Her Majesty’s Treasury are running bare. While I’m sure most of you sympathise with the plight of those demonstrating students, I am compelled to offer a more unpopular perspective.

For a long time, university education was wholly paid for by government in the United Kingdom, funded mostly through taxation, as well as private investment and foreign students. This was feasible because for the longest time a smaller elite would attend further education. This elite was not necessarily characterised by their wealth, since the education was free, but rather by their scholastic aptitude. One had to be intellectually qualified to attend university and leave with a degree.

Today, many students seem to believe that they are automatically entitled to a university education funded by the taxpayer. That somehow the whole of society will benefit from students achieving a university place through the lowest common denominator and graduating in surf technology (whether that’s a degree in internet browsing or riding waves is anyone’s guess). Well, despite the previous administration’s attempt to cram more students into university than ever before, I just don’t buy that argument.

University attendance has become a political issue, with a gain in university places for students equating to a gain in political capital for the incumbent government.  Government has created a culture in which university attendance is not only seen as a must, but as an entitlement, but this can only be detrimental to society. Surely society would benefit from graduates competing to obtain higher quality degrees in any subject (surf all you want), and achieving them through merit and diligence, rather than through an abject right.

Students voraciously clamber for a degree these days, and academic standards are seemingly disintegrating to make it possible. Leaving university without the ability to construct a coherent sentence has become endemic, and employers are now complaining about the quality of their graduate employees. Other industrial giants like India and China are producing far more exceptional and competitive graduates who are not only fluent in their own language, but fluent in ours too.

Now, of course the students are all complaining that they shouldn’t pay so much for their education, that higher tuition fees would create two tiers of graduates separated by wealth and that is unfair. They argue that taxation, especially amongst the wealthy, should increase to cover their expenses, that Trident nuclear submarines should be scrapped, that campus beer should be provided free of charge etc… That higher education is not only owed to them but also necessary to progress society forward.

Well, those notions could be countered with the simple fact that history has consistently demonstrated that disparity of any kind provides the incentive to excel. If education costs money, then affording it may compel one to either work harder to achieve scholarship, or work extra hours to pay for it. I realise that no one likes to hear this, but this is what separates the best from the mediocre. Commercialisation of education, you say? Welcome to capitalism. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Do we really think that people want to pay higher taxes to fund bigger government, which can then give away education at the lowest auction price? The tide of individual responsibility in this land has receded towards the now prevalent idea that if a fat man is standing next to a skinny man, the fat man must have become that way at the expense of the skinny one. The idea that if you become rich, it’s success, but if someone else does, it’s greed and they owe you a piece of their pie. Well, the rich aren’t rich at the expense of students. Most of them succeeded through their own creativity, enterprise and zeal, qualities that risk evaporating lest we choke off the dependence on government that so many people willingly imbibe. Burdening them with punitive taxation is not only an affront to their earnest success, but a disincentive to others seeking prosperity, to say nothing of retarding an already spluttering economy. The top percentile of earners in this country already shoulder a staggering percentage of the tax burden, and crippling their ability to spend, invest and create more jobs will lead to economic meltdown. The end result is that government ultimately takes in less revenue to fund things like….er…education?

With higher tuition fees, yes the rich may be more able to afford university places, but not necessarily more deserving. Universities need money, for sure, but they also need results to maintain their competitiveness, and thus the more academically qualified students will still be eligible for (privately funded) grants and scholarships. Competition for places will motivate many students (and their parents) to take greater responsibility for their lives and become more resourceful in order to pay for their education.

Giving up nuclear weapons to fund education, proposed by so many on the left and amongst the student ranks? Having a nuclear deterrent is not simply an indulgent expense. It is political language that categorically advocates peace through strength. Nine nations on this planet now possess nuclear weapons, with possibly more on the way, so please don’t find me alarmist if I choose national security over some kid’s degree in underwater basket-weaving.

Now, I myself may qualify for the accusation of hypocrisy, having received a grant for my education at a cost to the taxpayer. But I wasn’t born with the proverbial spoon in my mouth. I had to work hard to earn a scholarship to my school, and thereafter I acquired above and beyond the grades necessary for a place on my course; furthermore, I worked a job every available holiday of my five-year course, and for its latter half I worked every single weekend without break. The upshot being that my industry enabled me to leave university with a surplus and not a debt, and if I had to pay fees for my education, I would have found the resources to do so. Even if I had incurred a debt, my earnings from both my part-time employment while a student and my vocation itself would have enabled me to pay it off in a short time.

Finally, we need to address the entrenched belief in our society that a university degree is the only appreciable barometer of a person’s education. It patently is not. I have found in my own profession that the people with more letters after their name have an inversely proportional amount of common sense (and personality!), and yet those that didn’t sit an exam in a grand hall of higher education seem to be possessed of an elevated intuitive intelligence. There is a more dangerous deficit in this country than the budget, namely in vocational training and apprenticeships. Of course people should be free and encouraged to study whatever they choose and enjoy, but obtaining a degree in the subject should not be considered a requisite. Nor should the lack of a degree invite prejudice from employers.

More often than not, the most successful in any field are not necessarily possessed of a university degree, but of an attitude that compels them towards excellence. If we engender our students with the idea that there is more than one route towards realising their aspirations, then not only will we have a population that is able and educated in an endless variety of subjects, but those who actually make it to university will be less stifled by numbers and less doomed to graduate into a sea of valueless degrees.

Of course I want our students to be educated, but with an education of the highest calibre, achieved through competition and a determination to succeed. If we as taxpayers simply yield to their demands of entitlement, then we will reap the consequences when that generation comes of age and ultimately governs the nation.

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