Is a good education a right or a privilege? And what should it be?
In the UK we currently have a government which makes all the right noises about improving schooling for everyone, especially the disadvantaged. This, they argue, helps to explain the move towards academies (one in six secondary schools is now an academy) and free schools (although shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham recently revealed that more than half of free schools are in the least deprived areas).
But when it comes to universities, the picture is not quite as clear. And as we enter A level results week, it's becoming more, not less, opaque.
Traditionally, the British had a higher education system which was free, and paid for out of taxation. However, Tony Blair's (Labour) government introduced tuition fees in 1998, later tripling them (in 2006). This, we were told, was the only possible solution to a system which had become unsustainable.
The same government had been keen to expand higher education, aiming for an astonishing 50 percent of school leavers to enter what had been an elite system. It was not surprising that funding proved problematic.
But the tuition fees agreed - a compromise, of course - were not enough. Something different was needed.
And now we have it. Once again it's a compromise, and once again, it doesn't seem to be the perfect solution. The government is insisting that the quality of teaching must improve, but, while fees are going up, the government grant for higher education is going down.
Meanwhile, universities are told they can expand to take in more top students (those with 2As and a B in their A levels), and also informed that they may lose out to higher education colleges which charge less. And if this sounds complicated to you, imagine how it sounds to a 17 or 18 year old who applying to university for 2012.
Meanwhile we are all told to emphasise that this is a fairer system, because fees don't have to be repaid until after a graduate earns over £21,000 a year. This may be true, and is going to cost the Treasury a huge amount. However, it's still likely that many from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (and the most debt-averse) will be put off. Not a situation which anyone wants.
But back to my initial question. I find the whole universities debate fascinating because it does seem to be predicated on the idea that higher education (as opposed to schooling) is a privilege, and one worth paying big money for. Perhaps that's true, and the argument is always that graduates earn more (even though, according to the Office of National Statistics, graduate unemployment is currently running at 20 percent). I also wonder why so many people seem to think that a good education for the brightest in our society only benefits the student. Surely it benefits everyone.
To be honest, I find the future of higher education in this country really worrying. It is being changed, irrevocably, and I don't think for the better.
This is for many reasons. Firstly, the huge cuts to funding for arts subjects, humanities and social sciences suggests that the government doesn't value these, and that only sciences and technology matter. I'm don't agree. A modern, healthy society needs to be far more rounded.
I am also unconvinced that education should be so market driven. I am sure that in future, if you want the best higher education, then you will need to pay more.
This market driven concept may sound familiar to Americans. But I am not at all thrilled to have a system which is becoming like the US one. My fear has long been that people will choose which universities to go to (or perhaps more importantly which not to go to) depending on cost. And as a parent, I find this really upsetting.
In ten years I don't want to find myself persuading my child to go to the university which costs the least rather than the one to which she might be most suited or which might be the best.
The changes may affect demand for university places, which will also be hit by falling numbers of 18-year-olds. But they will definitely affect a system which always tried to be meritocratic and open to all. I hope we don't look back in years to come and ask what on earth we were doing. When it costs three times as much to study at Oxford as it does somewhere else, I wonder if people will really claim that cost won't put the best students off. And when universities are expecting such astonishing cuts to their budgets, can we really expect English universities to retain their impressive reputation?
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