Adult education versus university tuition fees

A Victorian stone building with two storeys, with a small round and larger octagonal tower in the foreground. Both towers have pointed spires and the larger tower have paintings of people set into them.Earlier this week Jeremy Corbyn announced that if Labour wins the election next month, they will abolish university tuition fees, which were brought in under Labour in 1998 and were increased dramatically by the Coalition. This is expected to shore up their vote among students who face massive debts; £76bn is owed in student loans in England, with some fees exceeding £10K per year from next year and interest also rising to 6.1%. The policy is estimated to cost between £7.5bn and £11bn, and the question is bound to be asked where that money is going to come from. When I heard it I said I agreed with reducing or even abolishing tuition fees in principle, but I believed investing in adult education was more important, and someone asked me why. So, here’s why.

18+ university education is, by definition, “first-chance” education for people who had a relatively undisrupted school career and left at 18 with the right A-level results. There are a lot of people who were for one reason or another unable to get these results. If you’ve been following the debate over grammar schools, or read the obituary columns in the broadsheets over the years, you’ll know that there are another group of people who studied as mature students because either their life circumstances or the quality of the schools they had access to did not allow them to get a clutch of A-levels at age 18. These circumstances include:

  • They came from a family which did not believe in university education, or education in general.
  • They came from a family which did not believe in educating girls.
  • They had a home life which was disrupted, or moved schools many times.
  • They were young carers.
  • They were in care, and moved schools many times, or did not have access to good schools
  • They were disabled, and spent their childhood in institutions, or special schools, which did not prepare them for higher education, or even permit them to study for A-levels.
  • Their school life was disrupted by illness, or by ceaseless hospital appointments or physiotherapy (a common problem for disabled children and young people)
  • They spent an extended period in hospital because of mental illness
  • Their school was run by people with a low expectation of them or had a high turnover of staff
  • Their school had an anti-learning culture among the pupils which they were unable to rise above while a teenager in that environment
  • Their school life was disrupted by bullying (by other pupils or staff) and they got out at the earliest possible opportunity.

It’s fairly well-known that people’s brains are not fully developed in the early teenage years, which, in the UK and many other countries, is when they are expected to take the first set of exams that their future academic career depends on. A seemingly less obvious problem is that they are forced to mix mostly with others whose brains are also not fully-developed (I say ‘seemingly’ because it is obvious, but people who seek to either deny young people agency or discredit their opinions often emphasise the first factor to the total exclusion of the second). They are capable of rational decisions, but won’t make them if surrounded by people who steer them towards short-termist, irrational ones and instant gratification; they are capable of studying, but they need the right environment and support, and not all get it. Adults tend to assume (and lecture young people) that that age is the best time of their life to get an education, before they have jobs and parental responsibilities and before they are used to having a disposable income, but that’s not how it is for many young people.

It is not only 18+ university tuition fees that have gone up under the Coalition and Tory governments; subsidies for access courses and A-levels were also abolished in 2012, with students being required to pay the full cost of their tuition rather than half as before, with loans made available; the government have also abolished bursaries which facilitated the training (a three-year degree course) of nurses. Yet I did not hear of any talk of reintroducing the 50% subsidy on adult education tuition, perhaps because this lacks the support of a strong “student vote”, but we deprive ourselves of many great minds and talents if we make it hard for adults to go back to education once they have a clearer mind and no longer face the bullying, social pressure, family problems or young-carerdom that they faced at age 14. We talk of a right to an education, and this is the first real opportunity some people have to get one.

Image source: Wikimedia, sourced from Geograph and taken by John Lucas. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License v2.0 Generic.

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