Thursday, 11 November 2010

Fackin' students

What is all the fuss? Record high grades at GCSE and A level would imply that the country's youth are getting smarter. Are they really? Or are standards slipping? Moot point, but the net result is that there are more people than ever in the UK trying to get a higher education. On the face of it this seems a good thing, but only if what they are studying will enhance their ability to contribute to society.

My year was one of the first to pay student loans. We still got grants for tuition fees (if eligible), but they wouldn't cover full tuition and certainly not living expenses. The interest was about 1.2%, and I paid mine off in about 3 years. Some of my peers with less vocational qualifications (my degree was Computing Systems) took longer to pay theirs off. IT seems to suffer a perennial 'skills crisis' in the UK, so I had every confidence I could pay my loan off. I was also a member of the National Youth Theatre, which opened many doors to drama schools. I chose not to take them. Because I met successful and unsuccessful actors, and not only did the latter far outweigh the former, but often the only difference in talent between them was a lucky break. The difference in income and lifestyle was tragic: kings and clowns. My MBA was self-funded and done in parallel with a full-time job.

Most private sector loans have eligibility criteria that factor in the ability of the person to pay back the loan and the risk of default. Why not include those here? How about tiered payments based on usefulness of the degree you're taking? Useful = grant supported; Underwater basket-weaving = pay for it yourself. Base it on a list published by Dept of Industry (or whatever it's called these days) every summer. Not only would this encourage students to take more useful degrees and acknowledge the risk of studying less useful ones, it would also encourage UK industry to be much more specific about the skills it needs.

Sure, it's biased against some of the more traditional, less directly vocational subjects (eg. classical greek or latin), but I suspect there's a strong case that so are the aspirations of the bulk of student applicants these days. Many just want a degree in whatever they think they can get. There's nothing to stop a smart kid wanting to study ancient greek at Oxford; they'll just have to pay more, presumably smug in the knowledge that an Oxford MA is a good enough meal ticket to pay off the bigger loan, even if it means a couple of years working in the city to pay it off before tootling back to get the PhD and become the next Classics professor. And if you're a good artist or actor there are plenty of other ways to get sponsorship from people who appreciate your talents (some of them are even televised, for your nation's enjoyment!).

It's good to see students marching again. Student activism is the most vibrant, wholesome, cathartic part of a democratic society. But I think the social contract between student body and government just needs tweaking: less swingeing cuts and more clinical cuts. But cuts nonetheless.
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