Negative educational equity?

The funding of higher education is something currently under review in a number of countries, including Ireland and Wales; but any debate around it raises issues not just of how an ambitious university system can be resourced, but also of the impact of a fees régime in a country that chooses to let the the students pay for some or all of the costs of their education.

It has now been estimated that in England the average student can expect to pay £63,000 for their university education – a sum consisting of tuition fees and living costs, and amounting to much more than the deposit for a mortgage to buy a house. While it is also clearly the case that a university degree will significantly enhance a graduate’s career prospects and salary expectations, there may come a point at which the cost is greater than the expected return; a condition sometimes described as negative educational equity.

One of the possible consequences of this state is that some may choose to look to higher education outside of England; and recent reports have highlighted the much lower cost of degree courses in some European countries, many of which are now being offered in English. There are apparently signs that some English students are availing of this opportunity, while international students are being put off from coming to England by the cost.

Therefore, while there is a strong argument for saying that free university tuition is something the taxpayer cannot afford, it can also be argued that a funding régime that imposes tuition fees on all students while the state detaches itself from the resourcing of higher education is equally unsustainable and may produce unintended consequences. University funding needs to reflect the value of higher education to graduates, but also the value to society. It is an area in which an ideological approach to what is right and what is wrong is very unlikely to be satisfactory. The reality is that, in order to have a successful system, the state must carry some of the cost, as must those taking the courses – where they can afford to.

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One Comment on “Negative educational equity?”

  1. James Fryar Says:

    One aspect that I always feel is overlooked in terms of third-level education and funding is the private sector. You only have to look at the responses from ex-graduates working in the private sector when giving their input to ‘departmental audits’ to see the problem.

    ‘We expect graduates to hit the ground running’. ‘We believe that graduates should attend courses on management and finance to understand how companies operate’. ‘We want universities to foster creative and lateral thinking’. And so on …

    The point is that what’s actually happening is that the private sector is abandoning their own training and mentoring practices and putting the burden squarely onto the publicly-funded university system. The taxpayer is effectively now subsidizing the private sector who are both having their cake and eating it. They put pressure on the universities to produce graduates with the skills they want so they don’t have to pay in terms of cost and time in training. Governments are eager for inward investment and want to entice big multinationals to their shores, so the pressure is put back on universities to effectively cover the cost of training.

    What we need, in my opinion, is more than research links with the private sector. We need teaching links. We need courses delivered by potential employers. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do think universities have gotten caught between a rock and a hard place trying to placate everyone while the private sector making millions in profits bitches about the quality of graduates and how they don’t have the skills they require.


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