Monday, 25 October 2010

Funding Universities

I rarely play computer games, however, one that I have owned for a number of years and always return to is the fantastic Age of Empires II for the PC - a "Sim-City" styled game in which one takes on a race of dark age people and has to lead them through the social, economic and military evolution of the middle ages in order to conquer the land and win the day. I love it - it’s a great game and incredibly therapeutic after a stressful day - nothing better than laying siege to a city and raising it to the ground in anger! However, it is the components of the game’s development that are the most interesting. As part of your societies progress you can build town centers, markets, stables, castles and... universities

You see, even in the midst of war and conquest, the principles of education and scholarship are deemed vital to the development of society. And the makers of this excellent game are entirely right to make this so. Without the transfer of academic knowledge, the engineers and craftsmen of the Middle Ages would not have been able to embrace the developments of the scholars that followed in the pursuits of science and technology.

We have a rich history of university education in this country - from the medieval halls of Oxford and Cambridge, though to the temples of Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the modern polytechnic and college-based centers – however, it has only been in the past decade or two that the issue of funding has become a central problem and one that threatens to destabilise the system within the United Kingdom.

The problem can be drawn up to a single year – 1997. The year that Tony Blair jumped upon the good steed New Labour and cantered into Downing Street. If you recall, he had announced the fulcrum of his policy intent at the Labour Party conference the previous year with the line “Education, education, education.” The focus, it seemed, was that the education system had been under-funded by the Tories and we had slipped down the pecking order of the world league (whatever that is). The truth was, when it came to education his intent was clear – simply to kill two birds with one stone. By expanding the number of university places, he would endear himself to the youthful voters who had supported his party and by doing so, reduce the unemployment figure as a whole raft of students who would perhaps have found themselves placed in the dole queue at the age of sixteen would be in the twenties by the time they would have to find a job.

And what about all these people suddenly going to university? What did they study? Did we suddenly find a new generation of doctors, lawyers and accountants? What about engineers, programmers or teachers? Try media studies and business administration.

Back in the eighties, there was some truth in the comedy of the Young Ones - I don’t mean the Marxism ideals, I mean the poverty-hit student flat with stereotypical “student-types” struggling to make their grants last for a full semester. Since Mr Blair’s intervention, a student now has more in common with a city executive than a bedraggled hippie, such are the comforts of modern student living.

However, these developments have come at a cost to the taxpayer and to the student. Universities must be funded, supported, developed and nurtured. Similarly, students have a need to survive and even if the legion of iPhones are removed from the equation, there remains a basic need for food, shelter and books. Having spent four years at university myself, I remain saddled with a large student loan that I will continue to repay throughout the rest of my working life, as I was not as fortune as those before me who received grants to fund their time as students. Conversely, those entering into university life since that point have had to contend with the increase in tuition fees which adds a further dimension of expense to the equation. With an increasing population, the number of university places is seemingly going to increase and increase until something gives.

Listen to the left and they tend to follow Ed Milliband’s idea for a graduation tax. Listen to the right and they simply skirt the issue. But I am afraid that someone has to pay for university education, or do they?

Surely if we scaled back the number of degrees on offer and stuck to the basic academic requirements for entry, then we wouldn’t have such a dilemma? Medicine, law, finance, engineering, science, languages – these are all necessary practices that require academic tuition. But what of nursing, mechanics and such like – are they not better served as apprenticeships? Furthermore, when it comes to “football culture”, “under water basket weaving”, “soap studies” and “surfing” – surely there can be no point in these existing under any circumstances? I notice that it is often the people with banal degrees who advocate their continued existence – Stephen Merchant has a first class honours degree in Film (I’m sure that was a challenge), whilst I met a couple in Scotland who had studied to become directors and were intending upon graduating to hold out for a job until they were offered full control of a film. I graduated with an honours degree in Marketing, a discipline based upon academia and business principles, but I would even question the validity of that as a degree.

When I first arrived at Plymouth, I had a preconceived notion that universities were full of leftwing time wasters. By the time I had completed the first year, that viewpoint had been fully confirmed. I recall, for example, walking to the library one morning with a friend and being approached by a young student who asked us if we wanted to sign a petition to legalise the smoking of pot. Now, there is nothing more guaranteed to gain instant approval of most students than a cause such as this. However, with little interest in putting my name to any paper, I stepped aside, whilst my friend eagerly scribbled his name down. It was only when I glanced at the sheet that I noticed the yellow paper and bird-like symbol as indicating that it belonged to the Lib Dem party. I pointed this out to the girl, who mumbled some feeble excuse in response. As it turned out, the signature he had bequeathed indicated in writing that he was interested in joining the Lib Dems (the link being that they were at the time loosely considering supporting the legalization of Cannabis). This was only one of a number of similar instances throughout the first year that told me that in essence, the vast majority of university degrees simply acted as a melting pot for all the frustrated left-wingers to assemble and attempt to recruit naïve first years to whichever ridiculous cause comes their way.

Students studying proper subjects are unlikely to be able to waste their time and therefore are more likely to succeed in life – and surely that has to be the central aspiration of any university? The way it is going, all the government will achieve is to devalue every degree ever undertaken.

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