As with an old car, fee payments may backfire

29th April 2011 at 01:00
Why the new market scenario of students as customers could go horribly wrong

So you have bought a car. Not just any old set of wheels, but the car of your life. Let's say you have spent pound;30,000 on it.

But it doesn't just stop there. Because when you add in all the "extras" you need, you discover the bill is more like pound;50,000. Understandably, you don't have that sort of money just lying around, so you have to get into a lot of debt to make the purchase.

Now you have the car. It is nice and new and shiny and just sitting in your drive (or for those who teach for a living, in the street outside your two up, two down.) The trouble is that you find out at this point that you can't actually drive the thing. There is nothing wrong with the car itself. It is you that is the problem. It seems you are simply not good enough or able enough or motivated enough to be able to drive it.

If it really was a car we were concerned with here, at least you would be able to get most of your money back by selling the thing on. But imagine if it is an education you have spent the best part of pound;50,000 on, and at the end of it you fail the course. You have still got the debt hanging over you, but the degree it was supposed to buy has eluded you.

It is this sort of nightmare scenario - students as customers - that university lecturers may soon be confronting. The new "market" fees kick in from September 2012, and already it is clear that most universities are likely to be charging at or near the maximum of pound;9,000 a year for tuition. And on top of that, students have to reckon on another five or six grand per annum for maintenance.

But then the problem is not just going to be confined to universities. Already there are a growing number of HE courses taking place in FE colleges. To that we will soon have to add all those other adult courses where plans are afoot to "marketise" in the not too distant future. Here we are talking about rather less luxurious automobiles than those university models, but with students likely to be faced with tuition fees of more than pound;3,000 per year (loans available at competitive rates, of course) exactly the same issue is likely to arise: what if they fail?

Already we are having a taste of it in classrooms. Overseas students pay top whack and a number of others, "unlucky" enough not to be on benefits, have to pay pound;1,000 or more for a year's tuition.

There is also a growing emphasis on pass marks and grades among the whole cohort that didn't used to be there. More and more of them are sitting down in front of you with that earnest look in their eyes and attempting to bespeak the mark you might be thinking of giving them.

"You see, Steve there is a lot riding on this. It's not just me, it's my whole family." Or maybe they will point out to you how the university they are hoping to get into has asked for so many merits or distinctions as a condition of entry.

Faced with this, all you can do is stick your fingers in your ears and make loud humming noises until they go away. Because you know that if you listen for too long, that way madness lies. But for how much longer will you be able to go on turning a blind ear once everyone pays? It might only be a jalopy, but it is the jalopy they have mortgaged their future against to get a chance to drive. One way to mitigate the effects will be to stop taking those gambles at interview and only select the safe bets. But what chance is a second-chance education then?

There is another possibility, though. The punters will simply vote with their feet. Refuse to sign up. Decide that investing in their future simply is not worth it after all.

Then all those of us who earn our living in this sector will have to make a career choice of our own. Anyone fancy having a crack at selling second- hand cars?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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