What is a fair way to pay for a third level education?
There is no such thing as free education, but just who should foot the bill, society or the students, asks Owen Polley
It's difficult not to sympathise with students, soon to face debts of up to £30,000 for a three-year university course. It would be callous if generations of parents and graduates, who enjoyed comfortable maintenance grants, or paid relatively low tuition fees, felt otherwise.
That sympathy is certainly being tested by scenes of youthful nihilism, which last week accompanied anti-fees demonstrations in London and Belfast. The students' arguments are undermined whenever a minority of protesters misbehave.
'Anarchists' and others aren't representative of the vast bulk of students, whose anxieties about the future of third level education in the UK are well-founded.
Some protest organisers, though, are decidedly ambivalent in their condemnations of misbehaviour. It has been a frequent refrain that while acts of vandalism are wrong, they are also 'understandable'. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, for instance, advocates 'direct action', which even if it were non-violent, risks provoking trouble.
There's little doubt the hysterical tenor of the protests is impeding a more fundamental debate about who has a right to third level education and how it should be funded.
A useful starting point is to acknowledge that 'free education' is a misnomer. Someone always has to pay the bill. And if more people stay in education longer, then the price tag will be higher.
The conundrum is whether society as a whole should pay for university education or whether students, who benefit from its rewards, should foot the cost? All the main parties at Westminster currently believe that students should pay for their time at university, as they reap its benefits later in life. That solution is elegantly logical, but the counter-argument is that society benefits, both economically and socially, from ensuring that its young people are highly educated.
The proviso is that so many people now go to university that the cost substantially outweighs the benefits.
The student slogan, 'no ifs, no buts, no education cuts', couldn't be further from the truth. The issue of university education is hugely complicated. Whichever party was in government, there would be some unavoidable questions to face.
Should students pay for their education after they receive it, by servicing loans or paying a graduate tax? Despite the stigma attached to debt, the two solutions have remarkably similar outcomes. Either way most graduates pay for their degrees throughout their working lives. Alternatively society at large can pay the bills, including people who missed out on a university education. That outcome wouldn't be as unfair as it is often portrayed.
We badly need potential doctors and dentists to see out their studies in order to provide us with the best healthcare. We also need educated captains of industry to create employment and humanities' graduates for our cultural wellbeing.
If society went down that route, though, the economic equation couldn't be neglected. The number of young people currently going on to do degrees would be unsustainable. Inevitably, it entails a drastic rethink about whether university is really the most appropriate choice for between 40% and 50% of students. If the Coalition Government decided to pursue that policy, the charges of 'elitism' would be as shrill as the current outcry over fees.
As students protest against education cuts and fee hikes, they should remember that 'to govern is to choose'.
In Northern Ireland the Executive will make that choice, and it will be a tough one.