a narrow 21 votes, the Coalition managed to get through its bill to
raise the cap on tuition fees from the current £3290 to a maximum of
It’s probably the worst day for higher
education of my lifetime. This change is being introduced under the
guise that it’s to help reduce the deficit. It’s nothing of the kind. If
it were about the deficit, the government would also be explaining that
in five years off, when it thinks it will have got the deficit down,
the cap will return to the current level. They aren’t saying that; they
aren’t going to do that. This is nothing more or less than the
marketization and privatization of university education.
For thirty years now, we have had an
unbroken series of governments with a dogmatic and blind faith in the
free market. Despite having just experienced the worst economic crisis
in eighty years, possibly longer, because of the failures of a free
market in financial services, they are using the mess that caused to
push through yet more market reforms.
There are so many problems with the
market solution for universities. First, education is a public good. It
has positive externalities from the individual transactions made by
universities and students. An educated workforce is a good thing for the
whole of society. A thinking population is good for our culture and the
health of our common existence. A critical citizenry is healthy for our
political and intellectual life, for our claims to be a civilization.
Second, in a simple market transaction
you select the product you want at the price you’re prepared to pay and
you make the deal. Universities are more complicated, because we mark
our ‘customers’. If you applied to go to Sainsburys, tried your best to
do the best shopping you can, with advice from Sainsburys staff, and
then you emerged with a grade and a certificate from Sainsburys, it
would profoundly change the nature of your experience of the shop. But
they are trying to assimilate universities to supermarkets. What will
this mean? Well, occasionally, you see the attitude that ‘we’re paying
for our education, we deserve better marks’. Students deserve the best
teaching available, but we, as teachers, need to have unalloyed freedom
to mark accurately and honestly. The market transaction complicates this
in a way that is in no sense helpful or productive.
Third, what is a university education? The rhetoric around the bill has been entirely that graduates earn on average more than non-graduates, and over their lifetime earn substantially more. Therefore, the argument goes, they should pay for their education. There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start but (a) it may be that the qualities you need to get into university might also be the qualities that would get you a higher salary. In other words, they are making a post hoc ergo propter hoc error. (b) The government is raising the point at which you have to start paying back your loan (for the fees now) from £15,000 to £21,000. This is a good move, but why £21,000. That’s still far below the national average salary of £25,900.