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What price education?

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Is anyone else appalled by what is going on with higher education? On the one hand we have the government wanting an extra 350,000 students to go through university by 2010; and on the other we have news of the universities themselves setting out plans to charge up to £10,500 a year in fees for courses.

If you do the maths, that's a potential £3.675bn a year for the higher education sector.

Fantastic for the universities which will get the cash and for the government which will not have to give it to them. But not so good at all for the students and their parents who will pay.

And, I submit, they will not pay.

What will happen is what happened before the introduction of 'free' education for all;

only the rich and not necessarily the brightest will get the degrees.

Some people will benefit from bursaries and grants if they come from low income families but for everyone else - a dual family income of £50,000 will be enough to make your children pay full rate - further education will be out of reach.

But surely, the argument goes, parents will be willing to pay to see their children get on?

Yes, but they are already paying for healthcare, pensions, even private school level education.

How much more money can they realistically find?

OK then, the students can get loans. But would you seriously contemplate finishing a four year course aged 22 owing £40,000 for your fees, and another £15,000 for your living?

And is anyone really going to pay such a sum to get a degree which allows them to become a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, when recognition of that qualification by their employers earns just £1000 extra on their salaries?

The government is pushing the idea of vocational GCSEs and the reintroduction of once outmoded apprenticeships to develop students with less of an academic bent. How much more attractive is that going to sound to just about everyone in future?

You are trained on the job, you are earning money from the age of 16 or 18, you have years of experience under your belt before the 22 year old graduates wander into your orbit. And you are not saddled with debt.

Companies in the contracting sector are already alive to the possibilities of apprenticeships to help solve their skills shortages. But what about those needing fully qualified civil engineers?

The ICE used to operate very successfully with a strong raft of members who started out with HNC or HND qualifications and proved their competence through experience. If it wants to maintain and grow its membership, instead of pushing 'upstream' and demanding degree level education it needs to develop its other routes to membership.

The ICE is all about bringing the brightest and best into civil engineering. If the brightest cannot afford university the Institution needs to make sure it offers them another route.

New president Professor Adrian Long wants to make the Institution more inclusive. It will be interesting if an academic can restart the debate on whether degrees are a fair measure of ability.

Jackie Whitelaw is NCE's managing editor

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