The last taboo

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As students, we are fortunate enough to mix in circles where there are almost zero topics of conversation considered taboo. Sex, drugs and debauchery are all talked about freely, even lauded as pillars of the student lifestyle. Yet there still remains one subject that seems to irk the entire student population, not just of St Andrews, but of the entire nation. One can admit to a penchant for S&M, or an ongoing relationship with crystal meth, with little risk of condemnation from one’s fellow students; but to declare open support for the policy of charging tuition fees for higher education is to effectively excommunicate oneself from the student body. So why is it that so many of us disagree with the whole concept so vehemently?

The answer to that question is pretty obvious. Every year student politicians will spout the same spiel about how education is a right and that to charge for it is simply to limit such an opportunity to the select few who are fortunate enough to afford it. In reality, it falls down to the fact that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and so any student lusting over a career in student politics isn’t going to vie for our votes by first trying to charge us nine grand to go to uni for a year. Furthermore, the argument against university tuition fees is both simple and effective. There is a general consensus that education (at least until the age of eighteen) is a right, and so why should this right suddenly turn into the privilege simply because the classrooms have changed?

This is certainly an interesting argument and one that we might readily accept at face value. However, I would suggest that it rests too heavily on the assumption that we have the same right to tertiary education as we do its primary and secondary counterparts. Such unabashed assumption is perhaps forgivable. Many (wrongly) see university as simply the final stage on the road away from ignorance, completing a well-rounded education. This is simply not the case. By the time we enter university, the most basic state education on offer will have taught any willing student the skills necessary to learn independently of the guidance a teacher might provide. We as British citizens can leave any state funded sixth form college at the age of eighteen having paid not a single penny, fully capable of then going on to learn things for ourselves, whether they be academic or otherwise.

Once these skills have been acquired (which I believe is our right to do so freely) a university education can serve only two possible purposes. One purpose is to gain an education purely because it is a desirable end in itself. Some people might argue that education is always intrinsically valuable and should be pursued wherever possible. Universities are traditionally perhaps the purest form of such pursuits and should therefore be made open to everyone. The second possible purpose of attending university is because it offers a means to another end, that of a desirable career path that requires suitable qualification, i.e. a degree. People who attend university for this reason do not do so for a love of learning, but rather because the lifestyle they want to lead involves a well-paid or respectable job for which university is the most efficient means of acquiring.

While many may judge one of the above reasons as more worthy than the other, this is entirely unfair. The young woman from a bleak, working class background who hopes to use university as a launch pad to a financial stability her family has always lacked is no less noble than the aspiring academic, with his deep love for learning. However, do either of these people deserve to get their degree for free? I would argue that they certainly do not. Of course, in an ideal world, their academic pursuits would come free of cost. Yet as we all know, the reality is that public coffers simply won’t always allow for it. Many of you may argue that we should be funding education before we fund the military; and perhaps we should. In fact we almost certainly should be. Yet government spending on education should be put in the hands of the most deserving, and students (from whatever background) certainly don’t fall into this category.

If we return to the two motivations for attending university, a closer look will show that in both cases charging tuition fees is entirely justifiable. In the first case, the young person who attends university simply to learn, a myth clearly exists that charging fees they cannot afford shuts them out of the world of education, relegated to the realms of ignorance. University is by no means the only forum that allows for education after finishing school. Especially in the UK, a university education puts so much emphasis on independent learning outside the classroom that an individual who spends all his spare time in the public library, burying himself in books, would not undergo an experience all too dissimilar from the average Honours student at our own university. If someone really does harbour an innate passion for learning then I am fully confident they will be equally satisfied if armed only with a little resourcefulness and a library card. The only real difference I can spot between this person and the university graduate in terms of academic achievement is the little piece of paper received upon graduation that hangs framed on their wall.

This leads me nicely to the second group of people, those who attend university because of the respect that a degree affords in our society. Respect that can assure an easy ride on the fast track to a six-figure salary and material comfort. In such cases, university is essentially an investment in oneself. For this group of people, the time and money they put into acquiring a university degree is done in the hope that one day their work will pay off, and they will make a healthy return. Yet as with any investment, there are risks. A degree may not provide the returns that were hoped for. Is it fair that this risk falls into the hands of the taxpayer? I don’t believe it is.

Of course there is a degree of public good in going to university as it makes us part of a group of people who are most likely to become the nation’s leaders and professionals. As such, the state does have some responsibility to make sure that those who can’t afford the student life are provided with generous loans so that they might be able to offset the costs of their investment. Nonetheless, this is as far as the state’s obligation to students can justifiably extend. The sad truth is that students are essentially a fairly selfish bunch when it comes to the issue of tuition fees. We all want to be able to gamble on our future with the taxpayer picking up the cost should it not come off. It’s entirely understandable. Unfortunately, it’s just not fair.

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