Cuts never come without controversy. Students never come without protest and politics. Combine the two and you have a veritable molotov cocktail, the perfect recipe for trouble, as seen with the recent and wide ranging higher education strikes and protests. Yet, the student protesters seem to be missing one key point: cutting funding to our university system seems intuitive.
Our universities have become unsustainable. Twenty years ago, a degree level education was still the almost exclusive preserve of the middle classes and above. Since then, successive governments have focused on the quantity and not the quality of social mobility, tragically failing to ensure real social progression. While the number of students has increased extensively, the poorest are still not applying to those universities deemed the 'best' in the country. The elite may not claim sole jurisdiction over degrees but they do still claim a monopoly on the best academic education available.
Add to this rising tuition fees. Tuition fees have amplified the impact of debt on young adults unprecedentedly. However, they have also transformed an education into a product. David Mitchell recently described the transition of the degree from exploration of self and society to economic training programme.
Universities and degrees aren't designed for this. Universities are the forum in which we create and explore the very foundations and future of our society. Academic degrees evolved from this as a means to rationalise and organise these discussions. Yet, when students come to their degrees determined to get their 'money's worth', they are unlikely to have the freedom to explore their subject in this way. A degree, with its ever-elevated status, has become a means to a personal end.
This elevated status, coupled with the economic concern of students, has also led to a proliferation of new degree subjects. It is now possible to study almost anything at university. And yet, many of these courses simply don't suit a degree structure, an issue many concerned with higher education seem all too happy to ignore. Take music production/sound engineering, for example; it is a hugely popular choice, with seemingly obvious career progression. Nevertheless, the most successful student of it that I personally know has pursued his career relentlessly in his spare time, aware that the degree alone cannot provide him with the skills he needs. Simply put, practical experience is much more effective for a future sound engineer than a three thousand word essay.
This is the crux of the issue. The last few governments' decision to pursue higher education in quantitative terms has led to degrees achieving an almost mythical social status. Young people are told that a degree will innately improve the prospects of themselves and their families when in fact it is only certain degrees from certain universities that do so. Many of the top graduate employers in this country overtly specify which universities and subjects graduates should come from.
Conversely, the alternatives have been derided. Apprenticeships, with their experience of work and relative affordability for both industry and government should be an appealing means of streamlining a young person's skill set to the career they wish to pursue. In spite of this, in the press, schools and in politics they are inevitably aligned with a lower social status. Even The Huffington Post, an active supporter of apprenticeships, which regularly profiles their value, couldn't resist the headline "Quarter Of Graduates Earn LESS Than Former Apprentices", clearly implying that there was something distressing about this statistic.
The government will only truly invest in young people and the economy when they increase funding for apprenticeships. For this to be viable, funding has to be cut from the university system. While it is easy to dismiss cuts as unfair and irrational, our one-size-fits-all education policy only serves to mask the woeful inequalities still active in higher education and damages the university system. Some of the brightest minds in this country aren't even studying at the best institutions and these are increasingly focused on economics instead of academics. When we remove our slaveish devotion to degrees we can begin to provide young people with routes more suited to both them and our economy.