Monday, February 02, 2004

The Cost of Learning

Before we all got so hot and bothered about Tony Blair being exonerated in the Hutton Enquiry, it was still the issue of tuition fees which was making us all angry. Vic uncovered a good article in the Guardian, and I tried (and failed) to voice the argument for their introduction (although I remain far from convinced about it, and certainly oppose variable fees). Amongst all that, we had a conversation with Anne-So who pointed out the tiny fees which are paid in France, and which made us feel all the angrier about the situation here. This morning, however, I read in the Guardian that

Le Monde's front page headline recently was "French Universities on Point of Collapse". It reported that the Sorbonne now ranks 65th in world university tables. The reason is lack of money. European universities were once independent, arrogant, confident institutions with a wealth of income sources. Bit by bit, they became appendages of education ministries. As they ceased to be trainers of an elite the number of pupils entered increased but the salaries for professors and money for laboratories, books and kit got lower and lower. In both France and Germany, the percentage of GDP spent on universities is less than half that of the US. On Tuesday night, the Commons turned the key in the rusted-up lock of university finance. Britain is now in the van of EU nations in turning its university sector to the future.

In Time magazine, Michael Blumenthal writes

The French system of higher education is broken to the core. At the level of higher education at least, it seems to me high time for the old French revolutionary triumvirate of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité to open its doors to a fourth sibling: Modernité.

Money may not buy us love, or even happiness, but it can go a long way toward buying things for which we have, as yet, no other currency. A culture that takes pride in its intellectual achievements also needs to create a university system it can be proud of. And — though it may sound unapologetically capitalistic to say so — there are times when even a certain crass Americanism has the ring of authority: you get what you pay for.

Where does that leaves us? We didn't vote for a Labour Party that would introduce tuition fees, and we probably won't forgive them for doing so. Yet are we prepared to contemplate commercial funding? Do we think we have the slightest chance of persuading the government to channel money from it's ridiculous and immoral war-mongering budget over to Higher Education? And why did we never have to pay before? Why now?

David Chaytor writes in the Guardian that we need to examine some of the slogans we use when we attempt to defend the notion of a free higher education system. First of all, we say that we don't want to encourage a two-tier education system. But, he points out,

Since when did we have a single-tier university system?

From Oxford to Essex, from University to Polytechnic, there has always been a hierarchical structure in British higher education. And what of the claim that under the new system the working classes would not be able to afford to go to University?

The fact is, however, that when full-time undergraduate tuition was free, the proportion of working-class students in our universities was close to zero. The key factor in widening participation is not low cost, but appropriate entry qualifications. Ninety percent of students with at least two A-levels continue to university.

These points don't make the idea of a market-based University Education any more appealing. But they do point to some of the fictions which hover around the edges of the argument. Chaytor concludes, damningly, that

a university system financed wholly or largely out of general taxation can only ever be a system designed for an elite.

He goes on:

Those of us who were the first in a thousand generations have got to recognise that our privileges were paid for by those we left behind. If we want to see a university place for everyone able to benefit from it, the old ways must change. That's why the higher education bill is so important. Far from being a betrayal of everything that Neil Kinnock spoke about, the new policy is a necessary, logical and practical act of redistribution of educational opportunity that should be welcomed by all socialists.

Now, invoking the 's' word in order to get the labour party back on side is a tactic well practised by Tony Blair, so it comes as no surprise to find Chaytor doing the same. And I disagree; the new policy of the labour party promises nothing in the way of distributing education more fairly. Assuming we buy the notion that it is considered advantageous for us to be aiming for a higher education system which is accessible to all and which produces thousands more graduates every summer (and as socialists, if not graduates, we must), we then have to cope with the fall out. If my qualifications (2:1 in English Literature) were enough, in 1999, to get me a low-paid job in the Publishing industry (but not much more) then how far, in five years time, would those qualifications get a similar graduate who is now awash in a sea of other graduates. What will the starting salary be then? And if having a degree is no longer a safe route to a modestly paid (let alone well-paid) job, how does one justify putting these hundreds of thousands of adults into unmanageable debt. If I had taken student loans at University (and luckily I didn't have to because my parents supported me financially) I would only just be starting to pay them off now. And I'm 26. How old will the graduates of the future be before they hit that ceiling and begin a long climb out of debt (if they get out at all). The pitfalls are obvious. For all the talk of education being further distributed, at the end of the day the same people will feel able to go (those whose background can carry the financial burden) and the others will demur.

Yes, there are arguments that a shift towards vocational degrees would help many future graduates (and might have got me a better paid job by now), and in part I agree with this. But (the wonderfully named) Stephanie Merritt writes that

perhaps the Government means that as many people as possible should have the opportunity to benefit from the experience of higher education regardless of the 'usefulness' of their degree, and all the qualities it encourages - self-motivation, independent thinking, the capacity for questioning and debate - which can only contribute positively to the wider society. If they really believed that further education had a value beyond enabling the individual concerned to make more money, they should have maintained the principle of free university education for those who show themselves to be motivated and able, because all the sophistries of their proposed bursary system will not override the fear of half a lifetime's debt in the minds of a great many young people.

All roads seem to point the same way - that there is no alternative, and that the solution is painful. Not so, of course. But until we learn in this country that we will never make progressive social change without changing the top rate of tax, we will grow to hate our governments, and rue our finances, all the more.

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