Could trebled fees and graduate unemployment turn the university beaten track into the road less taken?
I can still vividly recall walking down the hallways of my senior school with that all-important UCAS personal statement in hand.
I entered my tutor’s office armed with some third person drivel designed to sell myself to some very average universities – also drawn up with the statement an hour before hand.
Every pupil at my very un-prestigious private school had done the same that week and so would I.
What concerns me now is that nobody ever asked ‘Would you like to go to uni’ or ‘Have you looked into any other options’ and certainly nobody said ‘By the way, you may end up one of thousands of jobless graduates.’
As it happens I prospered more than ever before at university, but unfortunately for others it isn’t that promise land which slots everything into place following those tender school years.
In light of deteriorating graduate prospects and the bluntly imposed new fees, we must surely ask ourselves if herding our bright young things into the university black hole is still acceptable?
Over two-thirds of England’s universities will implement the maximum £9,000 as of 2012 and as of right now a record one in five graduates are unemployed.
Critics such as Sir Peter Lampl of the social mobility watchdog, Sutton Trust, say the fees will undoubtedly deter applications from students of mid-lower income homes.
Manchester’s universities and schools could be set to suffer if David Willetts’ burgeoning white paper is passed and strategies aren’t implemented fast.
Leigh MP and Shadow Secretary for Education, Andy Burnham said: “By trebling tuition fees and scrapping EMAs, the Government is pulling up the drawbridge and kicking away the ladder. It worries me greatly because I can almost hear the sound of falling aspiration in my constituency.”
He added: “The risk is a lost generation of students, who have the talent but not the financial means to stay in post-16 education. Young people are bearing the brunt of this shambolic government and it’s not only unfair, it’s the wrong long-term decision for our country.”
Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), Professor John Brooks forecasts that attracting diverse students will be challenging.
Subject to the Office for Fair Access’ (Offa) approval, the University of Manchester has opted for the full £9000, while MMU and Salford University, will charge between £8000-£9000.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: University of Manchester renovates its Oxford Road campus.
According to Professor Brooks, the fees were based on a decision not to compromise quality by joining some other institutions in the ‘bargain basement’.
He said: “MMU’s long-term strategy is to offer value for money and vocational courses that are professionally recognised as well as maintain our absolute commitment to widening participation and to meet the needs of families in the North West.”
Like many other institutes MMU will offer a bursary of around £3000 to students from low income.
However, according to Gareth Thomas, Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Science, the subsidies for low income students won’t solve the middle-class squeeze.
He said: “The Government is risking the worst of all worlds: middle income students and their families are being asked to pick up the tab, but still seeing no spending on widening access.”
And yet others say the fees remain a blip on the radar to many school-leavers.
Val Berry, Careers Coordinator for Trafford’s Ashton on Mersey Sixth Form, and keen advocate of university education, believes the fees won’t halt the ever-increasing applications.
“I don’t envisage a huge dip in applications,” she said.
“Possibly because the students themselves are aware of the benefits of going to university, even at a higher cost and obviously we push that point.
“I think parents have come to accept the fees even if they don’t accept the situation.”
When speaking to current sixth formers Val’s assessment seems to mostly ring true but doubts and issues are sprouting where there once were none.
Year-11 student, Martin Capon, said: “I’m quite scared that after three years of uni I’ll still be struggling to find a job and those three years could have been spent working and earning.”
From 2012 onwards the average debt a full-time student will accrue is £39,000 and yet there still appears to be a serious case of the blind leading the blind as secondary schools box, package and deliver students to universities.
Last year there was a 33% increase in applications and over 50,000 people were declined.
Many argue that more needs to be made of the university alternatives most especially apprenticeships.
Not Going To Uni Operations Manager, Craig Abrahart, said: “I feel schools are waking up to alternatives out there but a good number still think universities are pinnacle.
“Some of the problem stems from teachers who understandably don’t realise the alternatives. Most of them went from school to university and then onto a PGCE.
“We need to make clear the distinction between vocational routes and academic and put them on a par.”
Ria Alder, from Sale, chose to pursue an accountancy career through a government-funded apprenticeship for a fast-track route to her qualifications.
The ex-grammar school student said: “I wanted to prove that I didn’t have to go to uni to have a good career
“At my sixth form they were very focused on Oxbridge and medicine and law so I guess I wanted to prove them wrong – which I did!”
She added: “The experience of working on the job isn’t even comparable to doing a degree. Being taught how to do something by textbook in a lecture isn’t the same as what actually happens in the working environment.”
The North West provides more apprenticeships than any other region, contributing over 17% to the national figure and 37% of that is based in Greater Manchester.
Vince Cable announced the creation of 250,000 apprenticeships over the next four years in an article addressing Britain’s youth unemployment on Sunday.
“We can’t afford to let our young people be left behind and see their talents go to waste. A strong economy needs a highly skilled workforce,” he said.
“For too long academic qualifications have been valued above vocational skills. That is wrong.”
Perhaps Liberal Democrats, who still bare the brunt of resentment over the fees crisis, are finally backing an alternative with proven success.