Bahram Bekhradnia: If you're off to university, then prepare for the perfect storm

What students will end up repaying is more like a tax than a debt

Share
Related Topics

Today sees the publication of A-level results in the context of the most uncertain environment for many years. In the same week we will have seen concerns that student "debt" has reached new levels and questions about whether going to university is worth it; and at the same time there is concern that there will be more demand for university places than supply, with large numbers of aspiring students unable to find a place. What is going on?

Taking first the question of student " debt ", the reality is that it is a misnomer. What students owe when leaving university is not debt in the sense of a bank overdraft or credit card commitment that needs to be repaid within a certain time regardless of ability to pay. The reality is that what students owe when leaving university is more like a tax liability than a debt.

Whatever the perceptions of this "debt", young people are not being deflected from going to university, and demand for university places is increasing. That is rational, even if the rewards that were once available are no longer guaranteed. As increasing numbers attend university, so good jobs that may once have been accessible without a degree are reserved for graduates. It may not be rational from the point of view of society as a whole, but from the perspective of the young person attending university it is entirely so. And of course, it demeans university education to think that its only purpose is economic.

This year the problem is not whether young people need to be persuaded to go to university, but the opposite. It is that it is quite possible that more young people will want to go to university than there are places available. This year and next the number of 18-year-olds in the population peaks, so demand would be expected to increase anyway; and on top of that the recession has had the effect that recessions always have of increasing demand – and not just from young people. And, through Sod's law, this spike in demand coincides with a government that is on its uppers and furiously trying to hold down public expenditure. It is a perfect storm.

The problem began last year when the Government found that partly through its own miscalculation – nothing to do with the economic situation – it was over-committed and instructed universities to hold down recruitment this year. It looks very bad if qualified young people are denied university places, and that was a little-noticed, but politically courageous decision. The Government could have told universities to take additional students but without providing the money to do so.

That courage has evaporated in the light of newspaper headlines predicting tens of thousands of disappointed university applicants, and the Government has now said that it will provide maintenance support for 10,000 additional entrants this year.

But the sting in this tail is that while providing maintenance support for students, the Government will provide no more funding for universities to take these additional students. That is extremely dangerous, if it heralds the top of a slippery slope that leads to the Government insisting that universities take increasing numbers of students at a declining rate of funding per student. The Government must not be allowed to let short-term considerations damage the country's long-term interests.

The other sting in this particular tail is that the additional places are only provided for students in science, engineering and business studies. Yes, business studies! It is not obvious how the country benefits if an applicant in history or languages is turned away but one in business studies welcomed.

The consequence of all this is that those who fail to get the required grades – even by a small margin – may not get the place of their choice, whereas in previous years they might have done. But the reality is that almost all young A-level entrants will find a place somewhere, even if not the place they had hoped for. There is unlikely to be wholesale failure visible following the A-level results.

The risk is not so much to those receiving A-level results today, but the potential part-time and possibly mature applicants who may find the places that they might have aspired to taken by others. The incentives are strong for universities to take traditional young applicants, and today's circumstances accentuate the likelihood of this.

Bahram Bekhradnia is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Coordinator

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Production Coordinator is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opening has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The majority of sex workers enjoy their job - why should we find that surprising?

Alex Bryce
A 'match' on Tinder  

Tinder may have inadvertently hit its self-destruct button by charging older users more

Nash Riggins
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn