I visited my alma mater St Andrews University last week to deliver a seminar and a lecture, and have an obligatory swim in the North Sea. I hadn’t been back in over thirty years. It all looked very much the same but the changes were very significant.
First, the students were much more focussed on their studies than my generation were. This is hardly surprising given the students are now paying very substantial fees which my generation did not. Little wonder then that we treated our time at university more like a luxury consumer good, where the current generation treats it more like an investment from which they need to secure a return.
Second, the university has doubled in size. The income from tuition fees has enabled so many more places to be made available. In my day only a very much smaller proportion of sixth formers could expect to get a place at university (and because there were many fewer of us, the absence of fees was affordable). It was clear to me many more students were evidently enjoying the opportunity of a university education consequent upon the decision to charge fees.
Third, St Andrews is, of course, a Scottish university and the Scottish government does not believe that Scottish students should have to pay tuition fees – so here is a salutary lesson: the numbers of Scottish students studying at the University is capped at 20% of the total student body. The reason for this is simple; because Scottish students don’t pay fees, the university cannot afford to take so many of them. The ‘privilege’ afforded to Scottish students of not having to pay fees is actually denying many of them the opportunity to study at one of the best universities in their own land.
Whenever sixth formers visit Westminster I always try and encourage them not to be daunted at the prospect of incurring a very significant debt in order to pay for a university education. They won’t have to start repaying the loan until they are earning over £21,000 per year, and even then the repayment schedule is affordable with very modest monthly repayments. The key issue, as anyone with a mortgage will know, is not how many thousands of pounds you still have outstanding, but can you make the monthly repayments, and the student loan scheme is designed to ensure that they can. As for the outstanding capital sum, if they haven’t repaid it all after 30 years it is written off anyway, which is a much more advantageous system than a graduate tax, which is the alternative, and which they would end up paying for the rest of their working lives.