John Birkett: Our universities need to adapt to the 21st century

Ian Ross, in recent letters to this newspaper, is correct. There seems now to be a momentum behind some form of graduate tax which makes no differentiation between his "mediocre graduates in useless subjects" and courses of direct benefit both to the student and the country.

Just as a defence review should be predicated on a foreign policy review of our place in the 21st-century world, so a tertiary education review should be based on the content of courses deemed deserving of taxpayer support, their locations, their entrance standards and the student numbers annually required to service the country's needs in the decades ahead.

This will of course be rejected by university staff and derided as a "utilitarian" approach at the expense of "true education for education's sake" for all and sundry. However, there will still be scope for universities to offer the latter – but not at the taxpayers' expense – and we might end up with more engineers, builders, agriculturalists and medics who are UK nationals rather than depending on immigrants who are needed in their own countries.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Why can't we have shorter degree courses with universities' annual vacations similar to industry's, but also more "sandwich" degrees spread over several years while the student is also in full or part-time employment, and more students attending colleges nearer home to save millions on accommodation? If these and other radical ideas were implemented, could we not afford to fund such tertiary education from general taxation?

The anomalies inherent in any graduate tax have been aired already – one being that the Bannatynes and Sugars of this world would not bear it. It is said in "justification" that the average graduates earn 100,000 more than non-graduates in their lifetime, but that amounts to only 2,500 per working year. Many would deem that an insufficient differential.

A progressive income tax is the correct way forward, is already in place so graduates "pay something back" and, with a 50 per cent rate, non-graduate millionaires and high-flier graduates would pay their fair share.