I apologise in advance for this being very UK-centric, but that's where I am and that's what I'll write.
So, these days it costs money to go to university. Well, it's always cost money, what with living expenses and little to no income. But now it's different: you actually have to pay to be educated. So what's wrong with that? Why should everyone, high or low income, graduate or not, foot the bill for the high flyers of the future? It seems only fair that they should pay it later on when they're earning the sort of salary their degree has earnt them. Besides, with the number of students attending uni these days, it has become far to costly for the tax payer to foot the bill.
This seems like a perfectly valid argument, but it makes some flawed assumptions. Firstly, it assumes that a degree is a virtual guarantee of a high paid job. Secondly, it assumes that it is sensible for the number of students to stay at its current level (and rising).
The first myth, is probably the easiest to dispell. We all know plenty of people who went to uni, got a degree and now work in a completely unrelated field for a relatively low salary. And if you've ever needed a plumber at midnight, I think you'll agree it's a fairly lucrative business. I am sue that for every 23 year old graduate, struggling to start out on a career ladder with graduate wage, in a non-descript job, there is another 23 year old skilled labourer who left school at 16, learnt a trade he now has 7 years' experience in, earns twice as much, has double the job security and can see his future mapped out ahead ending in comfortable self-employment. Not only that, but he's free from the dreaded student debt. Not just the Student Loan, but the credit card and overdraft debts that students inevitably accumulate whilst not earning an income. (I think I'll save a rant for later about the way banks throw credit at students in the hope of chaining them for years to come).
It is not just the white collar / blue collar distinction that shows the falicy of the argument. Sales is a partivcular point in case. Not just consumer sales, but positions such as estate agents and corporate sales. Love them or hate them, salemen (people to be more PC!) get paid well. Often VERY well. And the vast majority of well paid salesmen left school at 16 or 18. They seldom went to university. The simple reason for this is that in such a human oriented sector, there is no replacement for personal experience. As most in the profession would testify (boast) "you can't be taught what I know".
So graduates don't necessarily earn these amazing salaries, unobtainable by those who left school earlier. So it hardly seems fair to burden them with an extra debt they may never pay off. Besides which, there is already a tax scale in this country which means that those who are more successful pay more tax, and at a higher rate. So if graduates were winning the salaries promised, they would be paying off their education. Which is the crux of why the debate rages, Graduates aren't paying enough taxes to pay off the cost of their collective education, so there is a short fall. Not only that, but the higher tax brackets are being filled with non-graduates, who find it unfair that they should have to see these high taxes going to pay for an education they never received. And who can blame them?
So, if you don't necessarily earn a better wage, why go to university? Damn good question (if I do say so myself!) and it brings us to the second myth. Namely: the more people in higher education the better. For some reason, the government has started chanting the mantra that more people should be in higher education. Perhaps this is a misguided cry of ld socialism - education for all. But it's effect is quite definitely the opposite. Today, university is over brimming with the middle classes and it is harder and more expensive than ever for gifted children from less well-off backgrounds to get into higher education. The problem is that it has now become the standard that if you are from a middle class background, then you should go to university. Regardless of which course you wish to take, or what career you want - take the best place you can get at the best uni you can manage. And mum and dad will pay for it. The problems withthis are obvious. The kids dutifully follow the norm of what they are 'supposed' to do and head off to uni. They get there, they're not interested in studying, so they do as little work as is necessary and party hard, creating the stereotype that has earned students a bad name. By no means is this a description of all students, but it is accurate for a large number, I am sure. So the universities, worried about their league tables, soften their courses. The result is that less and less graduates are any use to industry (except breweries - cheap dig). If our universities are full of half-hearted students only doing what they think they should, then we can't expect stunning results to come out the other end. Especially when they know that however hard they study for Histroy, Geography or Media Communications Studies, it is going to be of little pratical use when they leave and decide they might as well work in marketing.
So, what's the alternative? Well, I might sound old-fashioned, but I say: "Bring back the red-bricks." The reason there was no shortfall in funding for students before was that people only went to university if they absolutely had to for their chosen career. The trained professions (Medicine, Law, Engineering, etc. as well as Academia) require the extra 3-4 years of university to learn the skills specific to those jobs. It is hard work to graduate on these courses, and that is why they have traditionally been attended by more serious students. Also, they have much higher employment rates because the graduates they produce are ready to work in that field. And only graduates are. This may sound like academic snobbery, but it really is not. I have o problem with someone studying History if they are going to be a historian. Or Media Studies if they are going to work in the media. But the number of courses in these subjects far out weigh the number of jobs in their respective fields.
In summary, I think this country desparately needs to return to some older educational values. University is not for everyone. It should be hard to get in, hard to graduate and ultimately worthwhile. I would like to see the government encouraging universities to up their entrance requirements, to see them discouraging people from higher education, rather than encouraging them. A degree should be a guarantee of a well paid job, but at the same time almost certainly be a guarantee that you will not have the best positions. The top jobs are usually held by those with ambition and drive, not studious reliable people. In the lottery of life, a degree should be your ticket to playing it safe, for those not suited to big risks, but prepared to work hard. If you want to play for the big money. Start early.