Why I believe the tuition-fee regime may force students out of the arts

August 19, 2005

"Choice" is the new buzzword in higher education. It would appear, however, that certain choices are more acceptable than others.

One of the best choices I ever made was to study for a BA in English and French. Unsure where the degree would take me, I found it consistently challenging and enlightening. I graduated this summer with a first.

As a mature student, assessed on my own paltry income, I did not have to pay fees. Being debt averse, I chose to work over the holidays and in term time to avoid taking out a student loan. I graduated with a relatively minuscule debt of £2,000. This meant that I could afford to do unpaid work experience in the film industry this summer.

The new tuition-fee regime will make it near impossible for students like me to avoid debt. Assuming my university decided to charge the full yearly fee, I would be graduating an extra £9,000 in the red. Such an increase means that students will have to consider their options extremely carefully.

The Government wants to ensure that less privileged students do not reject higher education because of increased costs. Provisions of the new system designed to reassure those students, as well as the proven benefits of holding a degree, should mean that variable fees will not be a bar to access. I strongly believe, however, that the new system will severely limit choice.

Students will need to ask themselves, in a much more calculating manner than at present: "Does the salary I can expect to earn on graduation justify this level of debt?" Many who would currently choose to study the arts would have to answer "no".

For the majority of arts graduates, financial security is a distant dream.

Most of us will need to complete a postgraduate qualification before we can hope to earn a reasonable salary. Several of my classmates are using their "subject of strategic importance", French, to get poorly paid work in call centres. Others, like me, need to work without pay to get a precarious foothold in our chosen industries.

Notwithstanding their interests and talents, fewer students will choose to study arts when an increased debt burden makes the salary implications of studying law, accountancy, engineering and the sciences even more attractive than at present.

Many would argue that the wider economic benefits of the new system will more than compensate for a restricted course choice. Won't university years be better spent coming to terms with taxation policy or the law of contract rather than fiddling around with Kant or Joyce? Why should we encourage people to study history when the economy is in dire need of engineering and scientific expertise?

The Government must resist the temptation to formulate educational policy on the basis of such positivism. There is much more to education than economics. If notions such as citizenship or civic duty are to have any logical import, we must ensure that society's critical faculty, represented and promoted by the humanities, is not rendered irrelevant.

Debates on antisocial behaviour and political involvement are unbalanced without an examination of the human costs - alongside the economic benefits - of Britain's work culture. If course choice comes to be overwhelmingly based on financial considerations, we will force arts degrees back into an elitist niche. This will result in a dilution of the intellectual wealth of the nation.

We must remain aware of the importance of the humanities and find ways to preserve their popularity among students. Otherwise, our society will find itself in intellectual imbalance, longing for the neglected baby it chose to throw out with the bath water.

Jim Morissey, Graduate, BA in English and French at Queen Mary, University of London

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