Keep Thinking and Change Britain: One Think Tank's Response to the Cuts

13/12/2012 10:56 GMT | Updated 11/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Thinking back to the student riots a couple of years back, you'd be forgiven for feeling like you'd had enough of students. Think again: not all of us are swinging from the Cenotaph to try and get our voices heard (what was it you were trying to say exactly, Charlie Gilmore?). No- in 2010, in the wake of the demo madness, students at King's College London got together and created a forum for change: an independent, student-led, non-for-profit Think Tank. A society dedicated to debate and problem solving, spanning wealth of disciplines: foreign policy, business and finance, immigration, defence and education, just to name a few. The idea is simple: invite specialists in the field to debate a hot topic, give students a chance to pose their own questions, and then encourage them to write up their own policy recommendations to be published in the annual journal, The Spectrum. The idea is effective: two editions of The Spectrum have now been published and the Think Tank has received an overwhelming number of responses from organisations in Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels. Just this term 20 events have taken place with 55 speakers and many policies underway.

A couple of weeks ago the Education Policy Centre decided to get to the heart of the current higher education issue by posing the question: Is a degree still a worthwhile qualification? It's a question close to all of our hearts. I'm in my final year at King's- I'm worried what state the job market will be in when I leave- and I'm even more worried for those who will leave with an incredible debt hanging over their heads. Can you imagine starting out in the big wide world whilst owing someone £27,000+?! So it begs the question: with the great cost involved and no guarantee of a job upon graduating, is it all worth it? Huffington Post's very own Lucy Sherriff was a key component of the panel, arguing that although she gained some vital skills at university, she thinks employers place too much value on degrees. She also made the case that for many 18 year olds it's simply "a luxury they can't afford". Whilst stating that her degree in English Literature is "useless", Lucy also articulated how many of us are feeling: that students are victims of the mentality that the only route to success is through university.

Joining Lucy on the panel was Dr Jess Pearce, King's Widening Participation manager. Arguing that university increases employability and earnings, we should be doing all we can to encourage and empower young people to consider higher education. Yes the fees are steep: but think of them as a 'graduate tax'- a little more money sucked into the government every month from your pay packet once you start earning a decent amount. Well, coupled with Osbourne's latest tax announcement it seems we are edging dangerously close to the French system. In fact, if university just edges us into a higher tax bracket, we are still left wondering if it was all worth it.

Jane Artess, Director of the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, also spoke on the panel, pointing out that in the last survey they conducted, 70% of graduates were very satisfied with their jobs, and 96% would still choose university if they had their time again. Crucially, Jane argued, to get out of the recession we need "high end skills".

Other topics discussed included the unpaid internship fiasco (how many junior doctors do you see doing weeks of unpaid work to try and secure a job?), and the call for more apprenticeships for those who opt out of university. One audience member made the case for some kind of system whereby local communities could benefit from various aspects of university life, so as to include them in the "university experience" without feeling pressured to sign up for the academic stuff. This could involve joining societies, sports teams and evening classes. An inspired idea that could lead to a more integrated society.

Although the initial debate topic was left unresolved, it did become apparent that the financial burden of university differed based on your class. For those coming from very humble backgrounds, there is a whole wealth of bursaries and grants available that don't need to be paid back. For others, university is still a cheaper option than the last school they attended. But for the rest (i.e. the vast majority)- the fees are becoming unaffordable. Is this the last we'll see of the middle class in university?