'Student numbers up as costs stay down'
This seemed to be the message coming from figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency last week. Devolution in the United Kingdom means that different university systems operate in the four nations. Scotland saw a rise of 3% in the number of first year students and Welsh universities had a 4% increase. However, England and Northern Ireland were hit by falls of 2% and 9%.
This, many believe, is down to the fact that Scottish and Welsh students pay significantly less for their higher education than their counterparts in the rest of the country. In Scotland, graduates currently have to pay a graduate endowment of £2,289, which the Scottish Government is in the process of scrapping. Whilst Welsh universities can charge up to £3,145 a year for their courses, the Welsh Assembly provides a grant, which means that Welsh students will pay no more than around £1,255 a year.
However, in England and Northern Ireland, the situation is dramatically different. Students are liable to fees of up to £3,145 a year of their degree. The fall in first year students has already prompted an announcement by Northern Ireland’s Employment and Learning Minister, Sir Reg Empey, that a review of university tuition fees will begin in September.
So, is the principle of free education still right in today’s society, or should this end after school? In the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, education is defined as a human right. Whilst it may be argued that charging people who can afford to pay for university is perfectly fair, it does not seem to be the case that people from poorer backgrounds are fully receptive to all of the publicity that governments in this country put out saying that they can still go to university as there is so much financial help available.
Universities provide a key skills source to power our economies. Countries always aspire to grow richer and by helping to ensure that their people are trained to their full potential, they can do this. Furthermore, it is not simply a matter of money but an issue of whether or not we are going to allow everyone to fulfil their ambitions. That next teacher, engineer or doctor could end up no where near their dreams because they were unable to go to university.
Governments in the UK have recently aspired to reach ever higher numbers, with fifty per cent of all school leavers being a number commonly talked of. This will never happen if there continues to be what many consider, rightly or wrongly, to be a barrier to higher education.
Whether or not universities charge tuition fees, they must be properly funded by government. For if they are not, we as a people will be all the poorer; educationally and financially. Furthermore, the prestige and ability to conduct high quality research and teaching within our universities could be hampered, as academics move abroad to better funded institutions.