09/12/2015 06:43 GMT | Updated 08/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Students Are Right to Be Angry, But #CutTheCosts Isn't the Answer

It would be counter-intuitive for the NUS to argue for fewer universities, and fewer students. But if that in turn came with less debt and happier undergraduates, it might just be worth it for everyone.

It is, on the face of it, terribly unfair. Today's students suffer tens of thousands of pounds' worth of debt, and once they become graduates, a slice of any earnings will be creamed off by the government for many, many years to come. Compare this to the heady, heavily subsidised stroll through education completed by graduates in the 1990s who are now are well on their way up the twin career and housing ladders, and you see that life feels very unfair for the young.

A current undergraduate will pay up to £9,000 per year in tuition before living expenses, transport, books and other expenses are taken into account. After three or more years of this, they will join a workforce which is at its most precarious for years. Stable, well-paid jobs are more difficult to land than previously, and the idea of owning a home is a distant fantasy for many, especially in the south.

So it is little wonder that students are angry, and yesterday's #CutTheCosts lobby of Parliament was both understandable and warranted. But in organising the lobby, the NUS is aiming at the wrong target. The idea that the Government will grant some Damascene reduction to the amount of money charged to attend a university is, sadly, for the birds. No matter how much students protest, the only way fees are going to go is up.

So instead, the NUS needs to focus on different, if no less radical, aims. Both universities and successive governments have let down students and it is time for them to fight back.

Firstly, the abolition of polytechnics and subsequent downgrading of technical education was an act of muddle-headed vandalism that must be reversed. It was the Major government that converted polytechnics into universities, at a stroke undermining the kind of technical learning which created qualified and respected builders, plumbers and other skilled craftsmen. The swing towards academic courses resulted in an unwarranted and damaging snobbery towards people who learn a trade rather than Latin declensions, and the current government's weak apprenticeship programme is not doing enough to reverse the trend. Much more needs to be done to promote and value technical and vocational education which does not need to attract the hefty price tags of classroom-based lecturing.

Then came the Blair government, which recognised the wrong-headedness of this policy but applied the incorrect remedy. New Labour tried to turn things round with its pledge that 50% of 18-year-olds should go to university. This helped to fill the vast educational supply side capacity glut opened up by the Major Government, but hugely downgraded the value of an academic degree. Since then, there have been so many 20-somethings waving certificates that many are forced to go on to study expensive postgraduate qualifications just to stand out. Moreover, many of those that don't bother with more study end up in non-graduate jobs, rendering the whole exercise quite pointless. For years, in other words, young people have been sold an increasingly expensive but often pointless pup, and would have been better served going into work at 18 or learning a technical skill.

And finally, there is the current government, which is attempting to keep the student finance system afloat by increasing fees to students and adding to their future debt pile. Although higher education is expensive, this is the easy way out, and the wrong way. Assuming that the market will take care of everything works in cold commercial terms but when the good in question is education, the equation breaks down. Paying for education is not like paying for bread - it's a long-term, nuanced investment, the end benefit of which cannot be finely judged for many years. It's no good pretending that increased fees have led to greater quality; indeed, one of the sole good things that has come out of this latest policy change is that students are more demanding about what they get for their money.

Instead, we need to admit, from the Prime Minister down, what we all secretly know. We have a tier of top-flight universities in this country which rival the best in the world. Into these institutions we should channel our brightest academic minds. Fees should still be charged, but many more bursaries should be made available and efforts to pick out poor but bright children need to be redoubled. For the rest of the sector, a radical cull needs to take place. We need to reduce the number of students, courses and universities to free up funding for vocational and technical courses, and to bring down fees for those who choose a genuinely academic course. With that, we could halt the charade of students being lured into courses from which they have little hope of achieving the top-flight careers they are promised, and it would go some way to addressing the debt calamity building up for this generation of students.

It would be counter-intuitive for the NUS to argue for fewer universities, and fewer students. But if that in turn came with less debt and happier undergraduates, it might just be worth it for everyone.