The musings of a young engineer: higher education

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by A.G. Nicol

With the Holyrood election campaign well underway, the question why those who don’t go to university should pay for those who do has once again surfaced. Such a question is clearly based upon the belief that higher education benefits the student/graduate more than it benefits society as a whole.

As a (soon to be ex) student who has had their education paid for by the State, it is my duty to answer this question and show why higher education must remain fee-free.

The main benefit of higher education for graduates is clearly the ability to take a more technically skilled job which has a correspondingly higher salary. This then has the knock-on effect of having higher living standards, being able to afford property in more affluent areas and so on. Estimates of the lifetime difference in earnings between graduates and non-graduates range from £34k for arts graduates to £340k for those in medicine, with the average believed to be around £100k [1].

For some, this alone is enough to demand that students should build up crippling levels of debt to fund their education.  However, consider for a moment the difference in tax that will be collected over a lifetime of paying higher income tax and by spending more, thereby stimulating the economy and paying more in VAT and duties.  Just considering income tax at the basic 20% rate, the average graduate will have paid at least an extra £20k into the Treasury over the course of their working lives.  This alone largely cancels out the original expenditure made in funding education.

For those of you not convinced by the tax argument, let’s consider the effect of having a large, well educated body of graduates on society as a whole.  For better or worse, we live in an age of globalisation, meaning that companies will relocate their business to countries that allow them to produce their goods for the best value.  What people tend to forget is that “value” is a two-faced beast, on the one hand you have the cost of production while on the other you have the quality of production.

It is the drive to minimise the cost of production which pushes companies towards countries such as China and India where both labour and materials can be acquired cheaply.  To compete with this, we would have to accept the same, or even lower, wages and living standards as the people in those countries.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not quite willing to accept that yet.

Instead, this leaves us competing to achieve the highest quality of production.  By having a highly educated workforce, the country can attract companies that want to make their products “best” rather than “cheapest”.  The advantage of having these companies operating here is that along with the graduate jobs created to achieve their core business aims, these companies will also create numerous non-graduate jobs to support the work of their graduates.  These jobs can range from cleaners to shop floor staff, delivery drivers to apprentices with everything in between and all are vital to the functioning of the company.  However, the simple fact is that without the graduate positions, the non-graduate employees wouldn’t have a job.

However, the benefits of supporting higher education extend well beyond what can be measured directly on a spreadsheet.  Humanity is currently experiencing its highest ever rate of technological and scientific advancement and it is generally predicted that this rate is only going to increase in the years to come*.  If we are going to maintain our position at the forefront of this development, we need to have a large number of graduates with backgrounds in the sciences, engineering and mathematics.  More importantly though, these areas must attract new students to study them as it is only through “new blood” that a field can continue to develop and grow.

The field most directly applicable to most people’s lives is undoubtedly medicine.  The developments made over the last century in terms of vaccines, pharmaceutical drugs, joint replacements and now tissue engineering have directly improved the quality and duration of our lives.  Once again though, for these fields to continue to develop they need a steady stream of new doctors, scientists and engineers to come through our universities to bring the new insights and ideas that will lead to the next ‘big thing’.

Away from the technical fields, graduates benefit society in a plethora of other ways.  Through the study of history and archaeology, we can develop an understanding of how society came to be where it is today.  Through the study of literature and the arts, we can further our historical knowledge by examining the cultural attitudes of the past, thereby helping to shape those of the future.  Through the study of languages, we allow the people of our ever shrinking world to communicate better, allowing more business to be done and fostering relationships that will help prevent future conflicts.

The problem with all of this is that if the government applies a tax on learning, either through tuition fees directly or through a once-you’re-earning graduate endowment, the people who will consider university as an option will be those with the ability to pay rather than those with the greatest academic potential.  The knock on benefits of properly funding higher education are such that it should represent a key spending priority and not simply an “if we can find the spare change” commitment as made by some.

However, we live in the real world and pots of money are distinctly finite.  So what if, after the government’s best efforts, it really does become impossible to provide funding for everyone who wants to go to university?  This is where it comes down to personal opinion but I would prefer to see the limited funding used to pay for those with the best academic potential by limiting the number of places through more rigorous admittance criteria.  When it comes down to it, this is essentially a return to “the old days”, before the idea that 50% of us should go to university.  I would be much happier living in a country and paying taxes to a government that values the education of its best and brightest rather than saddling an entire generation with a mountain of debt before they’ve even started their working lives.

* For those of you who are interested, the event referred to by futurists as the “Technological Singularity” is generally expected to occur within the next couple of decades.  This event is where overlapping fields such as nanotechnology, computer science, quantum physics, etc. will advance to the point where we will be able to construct an intelligent machine, capable of designing a more intelligent version of itself.  When this point is reached, the rate of scientific advancement will increase exponentially.