Debate about the purpose of universities is heating up in the United Kingdom, and the news that the consumer advocate magazine Which? (the equivalent of Australia’s Choice) would be ‘testing’ and comparing UK university degrees reflects an increasing tendency to view education as a private good which is purchased and consumed by individuals, rather than a public good which benefits society as a whole.
Of course, the ‘user-pays’ mentality implied by the Which? testing has intensified in the wake of the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government’s 2010 decision to allow universities to charge tuition fees of up to £9000 per year from 2012 (up from £3000). If you are going to be shelling out up to £27,000 for a three-year degree, so goes the reasoning, you might as well get bang for your buck.
A mobile phone company has gotten in on the action, offering a ‘prize draw’, with the winner having his or her tuition fees paid by the company.
The system being introduced has some similarities with the Hawke Government’s HECS system — students take out state-backed loans to cover their fees and upon graduation will pay 9 per cent of their income above £21,000. Any outstanding payments will be written off after 30 years.
The Conservative Party’s website uses a great deal of bold font to emphasise that the changes are "fair", noting "students will not pay until after they graduate". Graduates will however pay interest on their loans, of a maximum of inflation plus 3 per cent.
While this year’s cohort count themselves lucky to get in before the fee hike, high school students ponder whether university remains a viable option — a recent poll suggests that 10 per cent of students completing their A levels have been deterred from attending university by the increased tuition fees, and there has been a 12 per cent drop in applications for next September.
The fee increase has of course also had political ramifications — it directly contradicted the Liberal Democrats’ stated position prior to the 2010 election that they would oppose any reduction in fees. Although 21 Lib Dems voted against the move (along with six Conservatives) and eight abstained, the party has suffered considerable fallout from what many former supporters see as a betrayal.
Labour has responded to the issue with a compromise — leader Ed Miliband has promised to cut the maximum university tuition fee by a third, setting it at £6000 per year.
Labour treads an uneasy line on higher education funding, seeking a middle ground that will delight neither free-marketeers nor social democrats. As columnist Liam Burns notes, Miliband has previously argued for a "graduate tax" as a fairer way of funding universities; Burns suggested that students who "note his previous commitment to abolishing fees will not suddenly be won over to the party that introduced them when it suggests merely doubling rather than trebling them in this parliament".
More recently, the university sector itself has also been subjected to funding cuts of 2.6 per cent for the current academic year — a total cut of £940 million — which Prime Minister David Cameron characterised as "unavoidable".
The cuts have been vigorously opposed within the higher education sector, which has criticised the government’s short-sightedness. Oxford’s vice chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, argued that, in marked contrast to the UK (where the share of GDP spent on universities decreased from 1.3 to 1.2 per cent in the last year) public expenditure on higher education was growing in China and the United States.
Of course, these arguments take place against a backdrop of economic and social malaise — in the conservative Spectator magazine, Ross Clark noted with concern that the Occupy London protests took place in a context of "declining wealth", and that "in this downturn, unemployment is hugely skewed towards the young: 21 per cent of under-25s are currently unemployed, up 6 per cent in just six months".
"Capitalism is running into a fundamental problem: for various reasons a declining proportion of the population feels able to gain any meaningful stake in it…There is a growing constituency of people who, if the economy progresses in the same direction as it is doing now, will inevitably come round to wondering whether they would not be better off under a more centrally planned, more redistributive system of government in which housing, in particular, is a resource provided by the state."
Somewhat dramatically, Clark concluded that Britain needed to fix capitalism in order to save it — and head off socialist critiques of the system.
In this broader context of economic downturn and rising inequality, debates about university funding risk appearing somewhat arcane — next to concerns about housing, utility prices and unemployment, the costs of higher education are often accorded a lower priority. As Cameron wrote in defence of the fee increase: "at a time of real financial hardship… I don’t believe it is right that we ask those on low incomes to pay taxes to prop up an unaffordable university funding system that they are not benefiting from directly".
Such arguments are most easily made in respect to the old elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge: why ought the taxpayer subsidise upper-middle-class Tarquins and Titanias ("Brideshead Regurgitated", as one character remarks of another in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia) frolicking among the towering spires? Oxbridge is prone to being caricatured as a haven of privilege, and inequality is particularly striking in such a setting — areas to the South of Oxford are "in the top 10 per cent most deprived areas nationwide, measured in terms of income, employment, health and education".
None of this, however, is an argument for underfunding public universities and thus reducing even further the ability of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to attend them.
At a recent seminar series at Oxford on "The Idea of a University in the 21st Century", Professor Andreas Willi suggested that the institution might ask itself why a cabinet containing so many of its graduates — including, (in)famously, Cameron himself — had so failed to absorb the point of a university education as to see it as a good whose provision should be determined by market forces. Willi suggested that this was a time for critical self-reflection, inviting the audience to imagine a future where all citizens could feel a sense of ownership and pride in the university, rather than being confronted with an image of exclusivity.
Indeed, a stronger sense of public ownership of universities among taxpayers would deprive the government’s attacks of much of their force, countering the kind of populist them-and-us, elites-in-ivory-towers narratives about the higher education sector that were nurtured in Australia during the Howard years.
The "user-pays" logic of Howard and Cameron is dangerous and seductive, encouraging us to ignore both the public good provided by universities and the value of equality — it fundamentally undermines education’s potential for social mobility, as the argument that only the wealthy attend universities risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such arguments must therefore be met head on.
These debates about the value of higher education are important in and of themselves, but at a deeper level, they embody ongoing ideological conflict between neo-liberal and social democratic viewpoints. There is, in short, a great deal at stake — and not only for the students and academics of today.
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