Whilst Conservatives have spent the past weeks smoothing the way for dramatic cuts to education spending, university funding and student grants, the Liberal Democrats, with Vince Cable at the fore, have tried desperately to cling to their election promise of phasing out tuition fees altogether. With the two parties straining vigorously in completely opposite directions it is difficult to anticipate a conciliatory solution. This could quite possibly be the straw to break the fledgling coalition’s back.

With Nick Clegg’s election promise to scrap tuition fees weighing heavy on the Liberal Democrats, he will be called to stand by his pledge to create a higher education system “accessible to as many people from as many possible backgrounds as possible”.

But what will these dramatic cuts to funding and huge rises in fees mean, both immediately for individual students here and now, and in the years to come for the future of our country and the fate of education itself?

The arguments are many and complex. Proponents of the government’s planned cuts believe that forcing universities into greater competition with each other and with new private institutions will precipitate necessary increases in quality and depth of education, in a similar result to the great upheaval created by Margaret Thatcher’s radical policies. Yet it seems difficult to envisage an improvement in the quality of education provided by institutions facing a vast 45% cut in their funding. Surely, argue protesters, the quality of teaching, research and living at UK universities will plummet dramatically.

Furthermore, there is a very real fear that such a dramatic drop in the quality of British education would lead to the best and the brightest of our home-grown talent choosing to look abroad for further education and thereby dramatically increasing our chances of losing top British academics to future jobs overseas in the long run.

The threat of the removal of the cap on tuition fees signals the shadow of an enormous burden for the entire British public, not just for students. Already students are graduating from university with average debts in the tens of thousands of pounds – already they are relying on parents and relatives to support them. With fees soaring to double or even triple their current rate if the cap is removed, the strain on families will become immense, and quite possibly insupportable, especially in these times of tightened belts and lost jobs.

There is a very real possibility that this ripple effect will lead to families having to make unthinkable choices, perhaps having to choose between their children, with only enough financial resources to send one son or daughter to university. Worse still, we would be running the huge risk of creating a hierarchical, tiered education system, where the wealthiest alone would be able to afford the fees for top universities and selection would be on financial, rather than academic merit. Imagine a network of universities where the achievement and quality of education of each institution was directly proportional to the economic situation of the students attending, and bore no correlation to their academic strength or intellectual endeavour.

We would risk regressing to a hierarchical, patriarchal society, with social, economic and racial segregation emerging at all levels of education and, subsequently, employment and society. Not only would this take us sliding backwards into the dark ages, but it would utterly negate and render redundant the millions of pounds worth of funding that the government has in recent years ploughed into improving access to university to all regardless of their financial situation or social background. From the point of view of the students and, subsequently, of our society, our culture, our economic, scientific and medical progress, this would be an absolute travesty.

It may seem that the universities themselves are set to benefit from the removal of a cap on tuition fees; that they will be quick and greedy to allow admission prices to soar and fill their coffers from the dwindling savings of desperately hard-working families. Yet even this is an overly-simplistic view, for even the universities themselves would be greatly disadvantaged in the long-run by a vast rise in tuition fees.

As the rich and the privileged pour into the top universities and the gifted and academic pour out, our great British universities will simply be left trailing in the dust of others on the world stage, no longer able to compete on the level of research and the academic quality of education and results these new, financially-vetted students would produce.
So what are the alternatives? Vince Cable, along with the National Union of Students and several other high profile voices, suggests the introduction of a new ‘graduate tax’, whereby students gaining degrees that will lead directly to much more financially lucrative jobs will eventually be required to pay a much higher premium back into the education system. Lawyers and businessmen with salaries in the millions, they argue, are much better positioned, and, it is implied, have much greater reason, to pay back a higher price for the degree that has enabled them to reach the high-paid jobs they occupy and the standard of living they provide.

Yet this seems problematic in itself- who will decide which jobs are the most financially lucrative and which the least? Will the divisions be made by profession or by salary? And to what extent will other factors, such as job-satisfaction and personal risk be taken into account in creating the guidelines? It is all somewhat idealistic, yet equally rather vague, and nobody seems yet to have reached the stage of ironing out these substantial problems.

Another possible solution might be to calculate tuition fees on the basis of a student’s economic background, turning the risked hierarchical system on its head and vetting families for the financial burden they would be able to afford. But again this system would be riddled with flaws, from its disincentive for parents to follow the traditional values of hard work to help their children by earning a higher salary, to its implications that every student is necessarily dependent upon or has the opportunity to be supported by their family. Not to mention the inequality facing families with many children versus those with an only child.

Many argue that one of the problems with the tertiary education system in this country is the over-excess of university places and the superfluous graduates flowing out of the hundreds of educational institutions every year with no jobs to go to. Some would argue that the push for university attendance has gone too far, that thousands now attend university just to enjoy the social life, reading impractical and un-vocational courses that cost thousands of pounds and will lead to no kind of employment afterwards. With courses in ‘David Beckham studies’, ‘Surfing Studies’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Ufology’ available it is easy to see where they are coming from.

Supporters of this view would argue for a down-sizing in the number and variation of university courses and places available and a return to quality, with students who don’t choose to attend university being encouraged to take on more practical and vocational courses like BTECs and apprenticeships. But in a free and progressive society one must be deeply wary of a system in which the breadth of education is restricted and the academic choices of individuals limited by the state.

Who will decide which courses are redundant to our society? Who will say how many students should miss out on higher education and be forced prematurely into the work force? Whose decision is it to strike off courses and intellectual avenues they see as frivolous or unnecessary, and who will be there to regulate them? Many of the most vital and fundamental scientific discoveries, findings which have advanced our society and elevated our knowledge to previously un-dreamed of levels were made completely by accident during unguided research with apparently little or no immediate practical goal or purpose. Where would we be today without Penicillin, or indeed the internet for that matter?

The problems and questions are complex and thorny, and satisfying solutions seem to be few and far between. We await Lord Browne’s report with trepidation, but it is the government reaction and the forthcoming white paper that really has the nation on the edge of its seat. Extremely ominous was the report of the NUS president that Lord Browne has already warned him his union will be “unlikely to find my findings supportive”. Top university professors and academic authorities have likened the approaching debate and furore to “the perfect storm”.

The decisions that are made in the wake of this report will be some of the most important and revolutionary ever in terms of shaping the educational, academic and economic future of our country as well as the individual fate of hundreds of thousands of students. Let us hope for their sake that the right ones are made.

What are your thoughts on tuition fees? Should they be raised or scrapped? What are the alternatives? Let us know your thoughts below.