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After leaving a job in the UK higher education sector a year ago, and from my current vantage point in Argentina, I have been rather fascinated by the tuition fees announcements flowing from the @timeshighered Twitter feed.
With my redundancy payment, I travelled to Buenos Aires for a while to learn Spanish. My Spanish might not be fluent but I am now very capable of following my usual "I worked in higher education" with a statement of how embarrassed I have since become by the English HE sector.
It is a sector that seems to be blissfully unaware of how ridiculous it now looks to those outside it, with universities making cringe-worthy references to “student affordability” as part of their £9k (per annum) fees announcements. So warped is the new regime that it seems to be impossible to question whether students will actually receive an education worthy of the new price-tag. Expressing my personal view that university education should be funded out of public taxation and that £9k fees are an offensive joke appears to be completely beyond the pale.
For just over £9k, I moved to Argentina, paid my living expenses for a year and have taken Spanish classes for four hours a day, five days a week, for almost eight months. I have never shared a classroom with more than 4 other students, and around 60%!o(MISSING)f my classes have been either one-to-one classes or with just one other student in the room. With absolutely no natural aptitude for learning languages, I have gone from not understanding the phrase “¿Qué tal?” to reading Borges (albeit slowly), thanks to some intensive and patient teaching.
Even allowing for the fact that I am benefiting from currency conversion rates, I cannot imagine my money stretching anywhere near as far, academically speaking, in a university in England. First off, of course, the £9k would only cover my tuition. And what would that tuition look like? Probably a few hours of lectures a week in rooms full of dozens, if not hundreds, of people, plus a couple of tutorials a week, shared with 10 to 15 people at a time. If that had been my experience over the past year, I would have been lucky to have reached the Spanish future tense. The Spanish subjunctive would still be a dot on the horizon.
I would love to believe that the funding changes in England will mean that young people become more creative about their learning options, with more choosing to hop on the next flight to Buenos Aires. Sadly, the “buy now, pay later” mantra of student funding – as well as the image that universities have, quite rightly, as the natural bridge between childhood and adulthood – essentially guarantees the sector a captive market. Raising tuition fees is like increasing the price of cigarettes; a price change alone will do little to change an addicted buyer's behaviour.
Things are really quite different here in Argentina. Tuition is free in public universities, even for international students coming to study here. Dependent on the public purse, universities have unfortunately been allowed to become grossly underfunded. Stroll through a university campus here and you can see buildings in need of repair and lecture halls without any kind of high-tech equipment; it can be tricky to spot an overhead projector, never mind PowerPoint facilities. The funding issues lead to regular strikes on the part of staff and students. In short, the system is creaking.
At the same time, an emphasis on academic standards seems to win through in Argentina, in part because students are regarded as students and teachers as teachers. The system doesn't allow money to warp these relationships. It is interesting that most people I speak to here say that academic standards are higher in the publicly-(under)funded universities than in the private ones. And, in the end, it is absolutely right that, if a student in Argentina finds they have to drop out during their studies, they do not also find themselves walking away with tens of thousands of pounds worth of personal debt and little or nothing to show for it in terms of improved employability.
I have decided something over the course of my year here – that, all things considered, I prefer an underfunded publically-funded system (even one in a permanent state of conflict and with PowerPoint nowhere to be seen) to a system that owes its improved cash-flow to the fact that it loads students with personal debts of £30k to cover their tuition.
Universities in England are tripping over themselves to charge the maximum level of fees, whilst clearly losing sight of (or interest in) the true value of £9k. Universities in Argentina seem to cupping their hands together, holding them out and asking the government for more. Whilst, thankfully, these are not the only two possible models for a country's higher education sector, I now know that, if if they were, I would definitely choose Oliver over Ebenezer.
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