Student finance debacle – comment by John Beckett

Isn’t this the final sign that ‘we’ never really meant it when ‘we’ proclaimed Widening Participation as the way to get rid of the historic imbalances and inequalities in our higher education admissions? The very students who have been encouraged to realise their potential and who need the financial support that exists are the same ones suffering the most in this scandal to the extent that some are leaving university after just a few weeks; unable to borrow from parents, unable to basically get by. Not that it will be easy to access accurate figures on early dropouts so it will be difficult for the media to get the true data in this debacle. How have such delays and such miscalculations on numbers (when it was apparent from published UCAS stats all along how many intended going to university this year) been allowed to happen? Why was the online system not trialled effectively? Is the Students Loans Company chronically understaffed – not fit for purpose? We’re already into the next cycle – it can’t happen again. An enquiry into all this must occur. Sooner than that, as has been said elsewhere, heads must roll as it’s too late for this year’s cohort – the damage has irretrievably been done. And what on earth has David Lammy, of all people, been doing overseeing such a shambles. Many of his constituents are amongst those worst affected. A truly depressing portent for the imminent tuition fees debate.

‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees? – Perhaps Mr Disney will be happier now

One of the enduring quips that we experience in our guidance work is the duel pressure of widening and broadening students knowledge and understanding of the HE options, against the more traditional approach of doing a ‘traditional’ degree and a ‘respected’ university.  Any attempts to show the range of HE courses can be met with the “Mickey Mouse” degree refrain quite easily in my experience. Apart from the fact that Mr Disney had build a considerable business empire and thus seems a unusual candidate for such negative pressure, recently I have noticed a change within this area as some people recognise that the vocationally focused degrees might, just might, have some relevance.  I’m not sure if this is down to the recession and the decrease in more traditional ‘blue chip’ employers offering vacancies as mentioned by the AGR, or if the finance and banking implosion has caused some to revaluate their world views. I guess this became fact for me after a recent edition of the Sunday Times which carried a positive article on them stating that “Far from being worthless, the more unusual degrees are proving a hit with employers”.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article6829650.ece

Although there have been other articles in a similar vein on other papers I believe the Times one stood out for me at I can still remember the “Scandal of the Mickey Mouse degree rip-off” headline from 2003 referencing it to the comments of Margaret Hodge, higher-education minister at the time http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/senior_executive/article1099107.ece and the concern this caused students, and their parents,  who were looking at vocationally focused degrees. Interestingly the reason that the Universities mentioned by Ms Hodge felt that students were not completing their Uni courses was down to funding, and issue which will only gain greater prominence as we move into the bright new future of raising more money from student fees and the implications of that activity.

Students face a “perilous way of life”…

Just when your thoughts were on getting the exam results and moving students into the next stage of their studies, a warning about making sure they can manage student debt comes from Nigel Boobier, an insolvency practitioner with Osborne Clarke in Bristol. He does mention the fact that many students do not have the skills necessary to manage their finances when they go onto study and can get into financial difficulties. Read more on what he says here http://www.yeovilexpress.co.uk/search/4545424.Students_face_a__perilous_way_of_life_/
In fairness there is help available to guide students in this area, both beforehand in various publications and information but also during the induction week and at the freshers fair support for managing finances is offered. It might sound boring to any young person, but it is worth checking on the basics and make sure  budgeting skills and financial ability is equal to the task.

Drop out students get help to finish their degree at home

There can be many reasons why students might not complete their studies, indeed about 20% of all potential graduates leave before they have finished studying. If this happens it can sometimes be difficult to get back into HE, and you can feel wary of signing up for another 3 years. However one of the best kept secrets is how you can use your previous studies, if you finished a year or more, as advanced standing with the Open Univerisity, allowing you to complete that degree you always wanted whilst staying in Somerset. It seems other people also agree as Gordon Brown PM today announced an £12 million plan to help some of the 35,000 students who drop out each year from their studies finish their degree with the OU. Along with some other advisers I have a meeting with the local Open University regional office a week Monday and I’ll see what else I can find out about this initiative. Press report here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jun/24/drop-out-open-university-fund – UPDATE: This is a pilot project in the North East at the moment, but if successful could roll out across the UK. One to keep an eye on. I’ve got a HE update session with the OU in our region in a couple of weeks time and I’ll check on what else is new in this area