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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

If you think university education is too expensive, think again

People who benefit from a wonderful education should be responsible for paying for some of it

The UAE is home to campuses of some of the top universities in the world, including New York University Abu Dhabi. Courtesy NYU
The UAE is home to campuses of some of the top universities in the world, including New York University Abu Dhabi. Courtesy NYU

All this week I will be in one of the finest buildings in the world, Canterbury Cathedral, wearing an enormous cloak heavy with gold braid, and shaking hands with approximately 3,000 people, most of them in their early 20s. It’s an annual ritual and it has made me even more respectful of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth who - according to some estimates - may have shaken some 40,000 hands a year each year of the 65 years during which she has become the longest-serving monarch in British history. American politicians call such handshakes “grip-n-grins". If the estimates are correct then the Queen has been on grip-n-grin duty more than two million times. That’s a lot of handshakes. And a lot of gloves. Hers wear out quickly. In Canterbury Cathedral I will not need gloves, but I can vouch for the fact that shaking the hands of great numbers of people is exhausting. The grins are fine. It’s the grip I worry about, especially when the person whose hand I am about to shake is built like a rugby player and strides towards me with an expression suggesting he will pull my arm from my body.

But it’s worth it. I’m the chancellor of one of the United Kingdom’s most successful universities, the University of Kent. It’s a ceremonial post which means I formally award students their degrees, including PhDs. In every delighted face I see success and reflect how important this moment is for each one of them, as it was for me. Receiving my first degree was one of the most important days of my life. The former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock obviously felt much the same. Like me, Mr Kinnock - now Lord Kinnock - came from a humble background. And like me he was the first in his family to gain a degree. It caused him to wonder aloud, “why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” The answer in his case, and in mine, was not just in passing exams in school. The real reason was that someone else - the British taxpayer - paid for it all. It’s not quite like that anymore.

All across the world, as students go home for the summer, finish their courses and collect their awards and degrees, they and their families add up the costs of a university education and consider the benefits. British tuition fees are capped at £9,000 (Dh42,600) per person a year, but add in living costs and some students are leaving university with an an average debt totalling an eye-watering £50,000. For comparison, average university debt in the United States appears to be about $23,000. So, is it worth it? The simple answer in most cases is - yes, definitely.

When I visit universities in the UAE, the US and across Europe, I see the faces of the leaders of tomorrow. The degree certificates my students receive are not just pieces of paper, they are keys - keys to unlock a better future. Moreover, worldwide the university sector is growing, thriving and big business. Students are good for the local economy, good for the future, good for their countries and especially good for creating understanding between people of different faiths, cultures and backgrounds. In the UAE, some of the best universities in the world - New York University Abu Dhabi and the Paris Sorbonne are just two examples - have opened study centres, branches or mini campuses. My university has study centres in a number of European capitals. This is the real melting pot of the 21st century. It is how dialogues and friendships begin.

But someone has to pay for it. My generation in Britain thought it was free, because for us, it was. But nowadays so many more people are qualified to go to university that the old system of no tuition fees cannot add up. Who wants to raise taxes on everyone to pay for the education of those who in the future will earn most? Who wants to cut the number of students? Who wants to cut the money universities receive and therefore destroy standards in a very competitive world market? Nevertheless, the British system of funding needs to change. Many students are forced to take out huge loans, which as many as three quarters of them are expected never to repay. Interest rates on these loans are too high. But for me the principle is simple: people who benefit from a wonderful education should be responsible for paying for some of it. But entire nations benefit from having smart graduates, so the taxpayer should pay a large slice too. And students from poor backgrounds should be helped the most, because I want to hear many more people saying they are the first in their family in a thousand generations to gain a university degree. I will gladly present them with their much deserved certificate. And as I do so I will be thinking of a bumper sticker I saw on a car driven by a student at American University in Washington, DC.

“If you think education is expensive,” it said. “Try ignorance.”

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author