Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"Education is the most powerful weapon. With it, we can change the world."

The Great British/ Norwegian Tuition Fees Debate

Is education a right, a freedom, or a commodity? Should the huge amounts of money pumped into sustaining a quality university be paid for by the students, or by the state? And should these universities be protected for the use of inhabitants in that home country, or shared with others?
It is these kinds of questions that have been emerging over the last few decades. I have lived through them in Britain, and am now witness to those same debates trickling into Norway; one of the last places in the world where a student's talent and ability mean more than their nationality or wealth in terms of access to knowledge. 

In 1979- 1982 Margaret Thatcher's government introduced, for the first time, tuition fees for international students in England. Students who wished to attend British universities could previously obtain a scholarship, but after the reforms were asked to pay £4000 p.a (£13000 p.a  in modern day terms) for their education. This unequal treatment of international students marked, I think, the beginning of the commodification of education in Britain.

30 years on, the entire British higher education system is almost unrecognisable. Whilst students from the EU are protected by law, such that they can not be charged more than what is charged to home students, other international students' fees are uncapped. This means that institutions are free to charge as much as they like (or at least as much as market forces will allow them). As for home students, we have gone from paying no tuition and receiving a maintenance grant, to paying £1000 p.a. in 1998 and £3000 p.a. in 2004, both under Tony Blair's labour government. In 2010, Nick Clegg rose to the position of deputy prime minister, by large part on the back of his pledge to make university in Britain free. This pledge resulted in one of the largest number of votes for his party, the liberal democrats, in recent history and prompted many people to vote for the very first time. The pledge was promptly broken, and tuition fees in England are now £9000 a year for home students.

Yet, I would say that Britain is still luckier than America, in that we can receive from the government a loan that covers the full cost of our tuition fees, plus a maintenance loan. However, this must be paid back in full (albeit only when we start earning above a certain amount). For these reasons, many people in the UK do not see the student loan debt as real "debt", but rather a form of graduate tax that they will pay over the course of their lifetime. I see some issues with this. Debt is still debt, whether it affects your mortgage application or not. And it is still enough to put some bright students off applying, and moreover punish, however little the amount is or however long term, those who have made the decision to learn.

The loans are also not extensive. You only receive access to a loan for one bachelors degree, and cannot receive support from the government for a masters unless it is as part of an integrated programme (such as 4 year maths/ physics/ engineering programmes). As such, the majority of people in England do not have a masters, whilst you would be hard pressed in Scandinavia to get a graduate level job without one. The only people I know who studied for a masters in the arts, or even other science fields such as biology, fell into either one of three groups: 1. They were talented (and lucky) enough to obtain one of the very few scholarships available 2. They did their degree part time and worked alongside to fund it, or 3. They received support from their family. Say what you will, but it is undeniable that the British system of tuition fees prohibits any changes in career plan one might have, as well as access to masters studies for those who might really excel in it.

Moreover, the maintenance loan of £3333 a year is not even close to being enough to survive for a year in England. You receive more if you study in London, or if you come from a low income family, but even with the maximum amount you must either find a part time job or rely on support from your parents in order to live. Almost everyone I knew at university had their loan supplemented by their parents. Compare this with Norway, where once at university age, you are considered an adult in your own right, with your parent's income wholly irrelevant. No-one I know in Norway received money from the parents whilst they studied, the £10,000 a year loan from the government was more than adequate (consider also that half of this amount is given as a gift if you pass your exams, and need not be paid back).

So where does this leave us all in the whole tuition fee debate? It is quite obvious, to me at least, that the Norwegian system has got things a little better worked out. But there are now risks to this perfect system. The current (blue-blue/ right-wing) government are proposing for students outside of the EU to start to pay for their tuition fees. They argue that this will ensure that students come to Norway for the quality of its education, and not just because it is free. They point to Norwegian students who must pay tens of thousands of pounds to study at British, American and Australian universities, whilst those countries' students come and study in Norway for free. Next-door-neighbour Sweden has already introduced this policy, and there seems to be a general trend rippling across Europe towards 'sharing' the cost of university.

This governmental policy, as most right wing policies seem to do, affects the squeezed middle class most of all. Those students who do not live in the most deprived of the world's countries (thus have access to quota schemes), but are also are not sitting on piles of cash, are the ones who will miss out. In my Norwegian class, I study with students from the US, China, Belarus, Ethiopia, Romania and Pakistan who, if Norway had charged fees, would not have been able to study here. These are students that, when they applied, were found to be the very best applicants, and were given a place on a range of competitive bachelors programmes, with a year of intensive norwegian tuition intended to prepare them. And if there had been fees, they would not have come to Norway, and their places would have been given to less qualified, less capable, EU students. There is the risk that, like what has begun to happen in swedish universities, campuses become less 'globalised' and more 'europeanised'.

And what is the other impact of the commodification of education? With commodification comes marketisation. We have already seen in England the push towards student recruitment, with universities spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on promotional material to attract students to their institution. Education is now a product, and universities are to compete for customers. It is dangerous when students begin to view themselves as consumers, with consumer rights. "I pay £9000 for my eduction, my professor should be there whenever I want him to, to do x, y and z........"

There is no way that Norway is prepared to deal with this. At the moment, student recruitment in Norway is a push- model; the demand is so high that promotion and recruitment are not even a function of universities. There is no marketing office and recruitment is a wholly passive process. However, with the introduction of fees, institutions in Norway will have to actively promote themselves in order to attract students, and this is a skillet that Norwegian institutions quite simply do not have. And shouldn't have to have.

Education has been free, for all, for many years. It is an argument that is based, most of all, upon the concept that academia is something beyond the borders of nations, and that knowledge and invention should not confined to a country, but to the international fields of arts, writing, science. Knowledge, talent and passion is something to be nurtured, and then shared with the world. The very best students from anywhere in the world should be able to study and to learn what interests and inspires them where they wish, regardless of their personal wealth, their nationality, or the political prowess of their leaders in negotiating scholarships. This benefits all. What is learned in a host country can be taken back and shared in their homeland, aid development and capacity building, and nurture an understanding of different cultures. Students who stay in their own country will grow up learning, arguing and debating with like-minded and similarly skilled people from around the world, further strengthening inter-cultural ties.

And hey, maybe one or two nutters might actually fall in love with their host country, stick around, get a job there and pay taxes....... :)