The Annual Debate 2018 was held on the evening of the second day of the Teaching and Learning Conference, (4 July), following a three course meal at the Conference Centre Hotel at Aston University. The debate used an adapted parliamentary-style format over 90 minute, followed by a vote in the room from those attending.
This year’s crowdsourced topic was: "This House believes that for the future of higher education to be truly global, education must be free for all" and saw conference keynote speakers Shai Reshef, President of University of the People (UoP), and Professor Christine Jarvis, PVC Teaching and Learning at the University of Huddersfield, argue in favour of the motion, while Nick Hillman, Director of Hepi, and Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, argued against the motion. Advance HE CEO, Alison Johns, chaired what was a very passionate debate!
First up was Christine, who said that the world needs a highly-educated population in order to survive, and that we cannot allow market forces to skew this. She argued that while each individual benefits from higher education, society also benefits from this level of education, and making it for sale limits what we can learn.
Christine pointed out that current government policy puts too much weight on higher wages and that students pay for their education anyway once they start paying higher rate taxes. Those who object to taxation to pay for higher education because they don’t go to university themselves are “short sighted” as “we are all in this together.” She explained that everyone benefits from those who go through the HE system as it provides teachers for schools, doctors and nurses for hospitals and engineers who design systems that we all rely on. She asked the room “how many graduates do you depend on?”
Christine also outlined statistics showing that higher education helps people understand a different world perceptive; graduates are more likely to be tolerant, commit less crime, are more likely to vote and use the NHS less. By charging high fees we will create a rich/poor divide where only the wealthy elite can choose to study subjects for the love of it, whereas poorer students will be more likely to choose vocational courses that are more likely to lead to a job.
“We have to encourage as many people to go to university as possibly,” she concluded. “Selling higher education is a detriment to us all as making it about invalid economic benefits limits curriculum choice.”
Next up was Smita Jamdar, who opened with asking the audience “what kind of HE system do we want and how should we fund it?”
She outlined her argument against the motion, saying higher education needs to be accessible to all who want it – not just 18-21 year olds. HE needs to work for students who are: mature, disabled, part-time, online, working, traditional and for those who want to study either academic or vocational courses. The funding system needs to reflect the wide diversity of those who study it and be across borders and boundaries.
But she said: “How can this be free? No education if free – someone has to pay for it – but it has to be fairly funded.”
Smita said that recent government policy has almost wiped out part-time learners and praised the US endowment system that raises sufficient funds from donors to enable American universities to have millions of dollars available for scholarships to help the poorest students. She said that the UK should not be afraid of asking the wealthiest to pay more for higher education to enable those who cannot afford high fees to pay less.
Next on the podium was Shai Reshef, who spoke passionately about higher education being a basic right for everyone that should be free.
“Most people would support this – if it could be done,” he said. “But how can it be done?”
He outlined the model of UoP which enables more than 15,000 students from 200 countries to obtain American-accredited degrees at the first tuition-free online university, on a budget of $5 million. UoP is able to do this by using open educational resources and volunteer teachers, so that students pay just $100 per exam. He pointed out that any institution could run this system alongside a traditional model at very low cost. By offering higher education for free, we can “change individuals, families, communities and the whole world,” Shai concluded.
The final speaker opposing the motion was Nick Hillman, who said that fees deliver a better standard of higher education, drive wider participation and cement institutional autonomy.
While fees aren’t popular they do work, Nick said, and they are in effect loans as students don’t pay up front and don’t have to pay any money back until they can afford to. Nick explained how he worked with the education minister David Willets when fees were reintroduced under the Blair government, and said he was proud of this work as it lifted the cap on student numbers and raised standards within universities. There are now more students than ever in the UK and by raising standards through the fee system, students now have a much better experience while at university. Making higher education free this would be detrimental to participation and standards, Nick said, pointing out that while Scotland and Germany don’t charge student fees they have fewer students and less money is spent per student.
Following the speakers, there was a lively exchange in the room and on twitter, with questions for speakers on both sides of the debate. The vote was close, but in the end the victors were Christine Jarvis and Shai Reshef in the “for” camp. Well done to all the panellists and we look forward to seeing everyone for next year’s annual debate.