It’s back in the news. We all knew it was coming over the horizon and, shame on us, the BBC got in first with its anonymous poll of university chancellors. Student fees, who should be paying and how much?
Is a university education a universal right? Simply, no. Therefore, like the vast majority around the world, the British student should be expected to pay for the privilege. It’s a choice and an investment.
The country can benefit from having a better educated workforce, but the student retains the right to uproot and take his acquired knowledge anywhere in the world. Should the taxpayer fund the latter case? Should we bankroll the next generation of Sri-Lankan doctors, Canadian teachers or Australian architects? Of course not. If the British taxpayer funds university education, the country should benefit from the investment by retaining the next generation of British doctors, British teachers and British architects.
Does the country need to invest far more in further education and the academic and vocational development of young people if it is to be competitive in the global marketplace? You bet!
However, investment in education needs to be coupled with investment in post-university innovation. The chasm between the lecture theatre and the workforce needs to be narrowed if we are to convert well educated, bright young minds in to global innovators for Britain. Young people emerge from universities full of unharnessed energy and innovation only to be rapidly subsumed in to the disillusioned rank and file.
There are very few places on the planet where true innovation occurs. The majority are in the United States, with perhaps one in Germany and, if we are charitable, one in the UK. Why so few in the UK? The reason is not lack of talent. The UK harbours some of the finest minds on the planet in its upper echelon universities. Our top universities compete in both teaching and research with the very best. Despite many widespread and fashionable laments in the media about spiralling standards, the better UK schools and universities continue to turn out exceptionally well educated and able students, as good as any.
Where the UK woefully fails its students is at the post-university level. We need greater investment, less nurturing, to allow more risks. Currently, there is far greater opportunity and reward for being nurtured in the received ways, “staying in line” and filling dead men’s shoes, than for taking risks and following innovative ideas.
This or future governments must address broader issues related to how we as a country want to compete in a truly global marketplace, and a good first step would be broadening post-university opportunities.