Don't care for debt

June 19, 1998

Andrew Pakes, incoming NUS president, warns that fees and loans will push students into choosing careers for cash

IS IT possible that by forcing university students to pay for their education the government may have inadvertently introduced a concept of the market to university courses?

Perhaps an order of preference was to be expected for institutions. After all, many universities are so confident about the reputation of their degrees that they believe they could, if the government let them, get away with charging top-up fees. In fact, Oxford University seems so sure of its desirability that it is now prepared to expel students who do not produce the cash for their courses within seven days.

We do not know the exact figures for applications to each university as they guard this secret carefully lest potential applicants smell failure from a fall in numbers year on year. But we do now have a clearer idea, pre-A-level results, of the pattern in which students are applying for courses.

What last week's application figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service revealed is that would-be students are now looking at courses and their subsequent careers in terms of cost and profitability. They are not choosing social conscience career courses that pay relatively little.

If this trend continues the very fabric of our society could be threatened as a generation of potential teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists and social workers is lost, and much-needed linguists, scientists and environmentalists fail to materialise.

Instead our universities, driven by a need to compete against each other to fill places, will move to cultivating those courses students appear to demand. Whole institutions might be given over to the teaching of business studies and computing because these are the subjects students are prepared to pay to learn; these are the courses that qualify them for profitable careers.

Why should students or their parents want to fork out huge sums in fees and maintenance for a course leading only to a long probationary period of training and notoriously low pay? Hence a fall in numbers of applications for teaching, nursing and the caring professions.

The government seems to be shooting itself in the foot. The prime minister himself appears in an advertisement to lure new teachers into the profession while the Department for Education and Employment fine-tunes a plan to destroy degree courses in primary education because of the implications of tuition fees.

According to the DFEE, a fall in applications of 15.4 per cent is insignificant because primary teaching courses are always over-subscribed. Presumably this the reason the government is spending money on adverts for teachers.

Clearly the nation's potential students are making some sort of reasoned decision as to what and why they should study. We believe the introduction of tuition fee charges plays a major part in this decision-making process. The nation desperately needs qualified teachers, nurses, dentists, doctors, social workers, architects, linguists and scientists and the government must be concerned by the latest figures.

Certainly the figures need urgent investigation, as does the socioeconomic background of this year's applicants. The new funding policy must prompt universities and the government into careful monitoring of its effects. Access for all socioeconomic groups to all institutions, to all courses and to subsequent careers must be encouraged. Without evidence of this monitoring the government's promises to ensure equality of access are hollow.

Throughout the tuition fee debate the government has insisted that parents will not pay more for their offspring to study than they did under the last administration. Under the plans, parents will be means-tested on how much they pay towards the annual tuition fee and students will take out larger loans for their maintenance.

What the government's plans do not acknowledge, however, are the large numbers of parents who do not, or will not, contribute to their children's higher education and the burden of worry this puts on would-be students.

No one can be sure how this generation will react. For would-be students weighing up the pros and cons of a university course and its subsequent career paths, the implications of putting family through the financial hoops of a four-year language course or the extended courses for medicine, architecture or dentistry must be considered. It is an awful lot of pocket money to ask for and in the medium term there is no big salary months after graduation but a long-haul career structure.

But if students took up computing or management courses, they would have just three years of fees and a tasty salary at the end.

The question is how long should the government, the universities and the related professions ignore this potential problem? Do we dismiss the figures, as has been the case with primary teaching degrees, or do we call it a blip? Perhaps we will just wait until after the A-level results are published and the true extent of the damage of tuition fees becomes evident.

While mature students (applications down by more than 15 per cent) make their course applications post-qualification, school-leaver students (population up 4 per cent, applications up only 1.1 per cent) are applying pending their magical results and they will not need to make a financial decision until their grades are known.

We believe this year's A-level day will be D-Day for higher education. Young people will be forced to weigh up family finances and personal ambitions to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives. If the latest figures are signs of a trend we can expect numbers on those caring career courses to go down even more. By then it could be too late for the government to backtrack.

Andrew Pakes is the incoming president of the National Union of Students.

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