Livewire - February 29, 2012

Sarah Holland on work experience.
Sarah Holland on work experience.
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By English graduate Sarah Holland

Professor Les Ebdon, head of the Office for Fair Access, intends to penalise elite universities if they fail to recruit applicants from diverse backgrounds. Universities could be forced to lower tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000 if they do not co-operate.

Several Tory MPs and academics may object, but this approach can only be positive, productive and encourage young, able people to pursue higher education.

The difficulty of securing a place merely due to financial status is an undesired obstacle. High fees are problematic for poorer students.

Love for the subject, strength within it, is not enough these days. Studying for academic fulfilment and personal gain is becoming something only the elite can justify.

Fees have risen, course choices decreased. Languages, arts and humanities subjects have been axed. The number of courses available has plummeted by 31 per cent. Many are not considered profitable enough.

This elimination process forces applicants to assess the most value-for-money option and swerves a university’s role away from an institution where students grow and learn into one that can get students jobs.

This may render many subjects pointless. I completed my English Literature degree just before fees rose. Had I applied now, I would have had to think twice because of my low income background. I would feel guilt-ridden as arts subjects can be deemed frivolous in the current climate. It will still take years for me to pay off my student debt.

Could I have justified even more, just because I want to study the subject itself? Paying so much for a subject that doesn’t lead to a specific career is difficult to defend. People frequently comment: “English? What do you plan to do with that?” or “Just reading books all day, that’s nice!”

Such preconceptions could discredit students’ instincts, stop them applying at all. And what a shame that is.

University is not about employability alone, it is a pathway to adulthood and encourages independent thought and freedom of expression.

Those three years are by no means crucial, but it is saddening to see them gradually belonging to the elite once more.

Potential applicants come from varied backgrounds, have unique passions and talents and should be entitled to higher education and varied choice.

Dentistry, medicine or engineering was never on the cards for me.

Prof Ebdon and supporters are right. Social mobility cannot function without universities playing their part.