Access to Higher Education.

Twitter was afire yesterday.

Why, you ask? Well have a look for yourself….

Lately, a lot of the discussion around Higher Education and the State has focused on access. Germany recently abolished tuition fees. Scotland introduced the payment of tuition fees for Scottish students attending Scottish Universities.

And note, I’m speaking to you from a Scottish perspective.

Teaching and researching in the humanities, you’re pretty well aware that funding/support can be an elusive monster, especially before you’re a well established academic. Humanities postgrad programmes are quite honest in this way, I think, and if you make the decision to move forward into a career in the humanities, you do so with the knowledge that occasionally it’s going to be a bit of a struggle in terms of funding.

Undergrads haven’t really been exposed to that rhetoric, however. And taking away any support including grants towards living costs is going to be devastating. And remember, this is coming at a time when hikes in tuition fees have been announced in  Ireland and England, and an oh so generous cap has been set at £9250. Scottish students might get it easy, but non-national students don’t fare much better than, say, English students studying at home this year.

It’s something I’ve come across in my own experiences as an undergrad and now teaching. Students from council estates were a bit of a curio (my friends and I began our undergrad courses in 2008, a year after free tuition was rolled out). It was a surprise amongst some (a minority though, I have to say) when we did well. A friend of mine was actually told by another student that they were stunned a student from a council area grasped the nuances of some text or other so quickly. This friend is now an English teacher.

Teaching, the socio-economic backgrounds of students are a lot more varied than they were when I was a student. But even so, lower-income students don’t form even half the class. You can argue whatever position you like for this: they’re discouraged away from university and into employment, especially with the concern over high numbers of unemployed graduates and a flooded labour market; access to secondary education was problematic; support in secondary education was fare, far more problematic; even with no tuition fees to pay, living and travel expenses exclude some from taking places on university courses…

To name but a few.

Point is, university is a difficult, arduous experience if you want to come out of it with a useful, competitive qualification, regardless of your background as a student. But low-income students find it more difficult to take up university placements in the first place, and removing the few sources of support that don’t saddle them with debt that’s going to eat up any significant earnings for a few years in employment…one can’t help but wonder if it’s a deliberate move, an attempt to push certain groups out of Higher Education not necessarily to privilege others, but to force these would-be students down other routes.

Or maybe that’s too cynical. Maybe it’s simply a cost-cutting measure. And don’t we all just love those? Only thing is, cost-cutting where is impacts the quality of the student body and therefore the quality of future graduates, and then future professionals…seems a bit like cutting your nose off to spite your face, to me.



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