The Pain Test

Write down exactly what I think the problem is. This gives me something to test. Do this specifically by answering the following questions.

1 The problem

Tuition fees for higher education are rapidly increasing. Many people are asking if formal education is worth the cost and subsequent debt and are looking elsewhere for their education.

2 What causes the problem?

(To answer this question well, channel your inner four-year-old and ask a 5-question “why” chain: “Why is there a problem?” “Why is that the cause?” “Why is that the cause of the cause?” and so on.)

Lots of people want a higher education, a degree, but feel they can no longer afford it. Also, the benefits that a degree affords – a better job and standard of living – no longer materialise, so a degree is no longer worth the expense.

Higher education has always been the aspiration of ordinary people as a means to improve their log in life. For many years university tuition fees were state funded, making access independent of cost. Recently, fees have been introduced and have now increased to a prohibitive level.

Mass higher education, in the view of many, has become financially unsustainable by the public purse, i.e. taxpayers. When there is increased strain on the public purse, as there is in these times of economic recession, taxpayers and politicians are asking whether the cost of state funded higher education is acceptable.

3 Think about the people with the problem. What are they currently doing, or willing to do, to solve it?

The people with the problem are usually young people looking to start on their lives independently of their families. The current options they have are to: take out a student load for fees and maintenance, embark on-the-job training in the career they wish to pursue, work full time to fund a part-time degree (this option has become less attractive since the recent increase in student fees), rely on family money to subsidise their university career, or just not pursue a university education.

4 What are all the current solutions to the problem?

The only official solution, and the only one really viable, is to take out a student load to pay for tuition and maintenance. Of the options stated above, the only other viable option, and only open to the very few, is to rely on family money. On-the-job training in one of the professions is just not available, and working to pay for a part-time degree is no longer financially viable – degrees are just too expensive now.

Prospective students are looking at a £40k-£50k debt on leaving university. For many, the rewards of a university degree will not cover this debt.

 5 Why aren’t the current solutions good enough?

The current solutions are not good enough because they entail individuals having a massive debt that they will never be able to repay. This prospect is just too daunting for many people to consider.

 6 How long has it been a problem?

The problem has only been so acute since the current government introduced the new level of fees. However, the problem has been steadily growing for the past twenty years when nominal fees were first introduced. Many people opposed to fees have been predicting the current situation but their arguments have largely fallen on deaf ears as the majority don’t see the long term value of free at the point of use higher education.

 7 How easily could  something change to make the problem go away?

This is not a problem that will go away with a little change. The current format of higher education in this country – full-time, campus based, university higher education – does indeed cost a lot of money to sustain, especially if we want a high quality, highly trained workforce. Alternatives to this model are seen as inferior and second best, especially when the use of technology and the World Wide Web are seen at part of that alternative.

The problem will go away quickly if voters and governments are willing to pay for mass higher education through taxes. This is unlikely. The alternative to is to start the long process of changing attitudes, and centuries of prejudice  to prove that alternative methods of mass higher education are just as good if not better than the existing model.

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