University tuition fees seem set to rise dramatically, after Lord Browne’s controversial report on the subject recommended the abolition of the government-sponsored cap that currently keeps them at around £3,000 a year. EastLondonLines spoke to students at Goldsmiths, University of London, to explore their reactions to the new proposals.
With universities playing an important role at the heart of communities, offering cultural enrichment, research, employment, regeneration and business opportunities, the news that the higher education sector faces a drastic shake-up could have potentially far-reaching effects.
As any good college radical will tell you, the personal is political. To Goldsmiths students in the midst of their education at this time of uncertainty, recent developments in education policy have left plenty to be concerned about in the overlap between their own experience and wider society.
For several of the current students we spoke to, the first reaction was one of relief. “It makes me feel fortunate that I didn’t have to pay that much,” admitted Elliot Snook, 24, a second-year Sociology student. Beyond individual circumstance, however, he expressed grave concerns about the potential effects of the Browne report’s recommendations.
“It’s going to drive people from disadvantaged backgrounds away,” he predicted. “Which I thought was the whole point of what they’ve been doing to universities – trying to get 50% of people into higher education.”
A similar reaction came from Media student Sean Anderson, 21, who told us: “I feel instant relief, when I hear things like that, that I won’t have to study any more.”
On a broader level, said Mr Anderson, the idea made him profoundly uncomfortable. “It makes me feel exploited – that basically I might have to pay as much at the university names. And I see that putting most people off as well.”
An important reason for his concern was the pressure higher fees could put on families. “One of the biggest parts of paying tuition fees is not only the loan that you take on, but that financial weight that that can put on the rest of your family – and your parents.”
Hypothetically, if he were a teenager facing the proposed new fee levels, he felt he would find it difficult to accept the financial burden of studying. “I’d definitely feel bad, at fourteen or fifteen, thinking my family might end up paying a lot of money.”
Had Elliot Snook been faced with higher fees, he might well have been seriously deterred from studying altogether. “I think I would have been completely discouraged from going to university,” he confessed, adding: “None of my friends would pay £10,000 a year to go to university. It’s just difficult to imagine.”
Of equal concern to the students we spoke to was the notion, also proposed in Browne’s report, that funding for university places might in future be differentiated on the basis of individual subjects’ supposed economic usefulness.
For students and staff at arts and humanities-oriented institutions like Goldsmiths, the idea that their primary teaching and research subjects may receive short shrift in future government considerations seems particularly worrying.
“It’s difficult to really imagine what’s going to happen,” said Mr Snook, with clear unease. “It’s just going to be the end of universities like Goldsmiths which are more concerned with the arts.”
“It’s the same old thing of people not thinking that artistic subjects are really important. People say, ‘Cut the arts before you cut other things.’ And they might have a point, but we’re a very creative country.”
For Catherine Hueglin, 25, who recently completed an MA in Postcolonial Culture and Public Policy at Goldsmiths, the advent of subject-based tuition fees would be ‘terrible.’ “We need the arts just as much as the sciences,” she said. “We don’t realise it very often. A lot of people really don’t realise how important the arts are to support our lives – as much as doctors, and especially economists!”
However, there are those who view the changes in a slightly more sympathetic light. While Goldsmiths parent Howard Palmer, 52, described his reaction to the proposed fee increases as ‘one of depression’ due to the potential deterrent effects of student debt, he saw the idea of subject-based funding as a necessary move.
“The nation should expect to get back a reasonable return from its investment,” he argued, noting that while ‘[some] good people will be inspired by their arts or humanities education, and will go on to make a big contribution,’ the direct social benefits of arts education are harder to quantify and demonstrate.
Meanwhile, for some Goldsmiths students, these heated debates over increased fees produce a certain incredulity. The university plays host each year to two cohorts of visiting students, primarily from the United States, for whom government funding of university tuition is far from assumed.
To visiting student Meghan Suslak, 20, British university fees seemed miniscule in comparison to the hefty cost of an American education. “I was amazed to hear that the UK used to have free tuition,” she said. “Coming from a country where tuition fees are a lot higher, it seems even the highest that they’re proposing here in pounds for your tuition is still less than what I pay at home.”
“From my perspective it still seems like a good deal. But I think that if I was being affected by the decision, I would definitely be upset about it.”