The argument marshalled by politicians of different stripes to defend tuition fees is that it is only right that students make a “contribution” to the cost of their university education.
Fine. But why are we only talking about a financial contribution?
Charging students £6,000 to £9,000 a year will not solve the funding challenges faced by our universities. The best are competing in an international market where an Ivy League powerhouse such as Harvard can charge $34,976 (though its $26bn endowment means it can offer financial aid to 70% of students).
For decades, there was an assumption that UK university education would be free – just as no-one expects to be charged to use the NHS. Sure, people might earn more as a result of using their skills in professional life, but they would also pay higher levels of income tax.
But at a time when well-paid jobs that do not require a university education have almost vanished and our economy is competing against the graduate-factories of China and India, debt-ravaged Britain appears to have accepted that students and not just the state should pay for post-18 education.
However, rather than asking students to go into their working lives with a dark cloud of debt hanging over their heads, can we not find a more imaginative and truly profitable way of asking undergraduates to make a contribution to society?
What would happen if a Government waived fees but in return asked all students to give five hours a week to community service arranged by their local authority?
Thousands of students already volunteer each week to support fantastic causes. They do not have the skills of qualified teachers, but they can make a transformative contribution to homework clubs, sports groups, community arts activities and environmental projects.
We are constantly told many young people lack role models who can encourage and inspire. Here is a real opportunity for friendships to form and for stereotypes to shatter.
Such activities would be of as much value to the students as the people they will try and help.
If an accountancy student spent five hours a week with a social enterprise, think of the skills they would take back to college. A future medical professional would gain a priceless perspective on hospital life if they worked as a volunteer in a non-clinical role.
A sense of purpose would be injected into student life and the experience of gaining and sharing skills would be a welcome balance to the stress and isolation which sometimes dogs study. Such a scheme would end the era of universities as ivory towers and lay the foundation for a truly big society.
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