by Sonia Sodha
An interesting suggestion has emerged from Oxford University today to waive fees for students who go onto do ‘socially useful’ work – like social work.
I am pretty sympathetic to the idea that in this period of unprecedented fiscal consolidation, students might have to bear some of the costs (for example by means-testing the subsidised interest rates they currently get on student loans, which costs the government over a £1 billion a year). In many cases, the private benefits derived from a degree – in terms of personal development, skills and later financial reward – outweigh the social benefits, but this is not reflected in the huge subsidy undergraduates get (around £8,000 on average per year, around double what we spend per secondary school student per year).
The argument that’s often advanced against this thinking is that charging tuition and higher rates on loans will put students from poor backgrounds off, even if there are means-tested grants, loans and fee waivers (take a look at Demos’ Service Nation report). However, under scrutiny this just doesn’t stand up: as many young people from poor backgrounds who get good grades go to university as people from richer backgrounds. The real issue is that fewer young people from poor backgrounds do well at school – an issue that isn’t going to be solved by making HE cheaper for everyone (but which Demos has much to say on: see our recent report Ex Curricula).
But the big problem with asking students to contribute more to the costs of their degree, however, is that some students don’t go on to get jobs that are much better-paid than average, and undertake work that delivers huge social benefit – like social work. That’s why this idea that’s been mooted for discussion at Oxford is so powerful. Here’s hoping that it will be considered as a proposal by the Browne review of HE funding, due to report later this year.