Finishing universities

Never mind top-up fees - British higher education is already a consumer experience.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘Many young people’, says UK education secretary Charles Clarke, ‘do not think twice about taking out a loan or credit to buy a car or holiday’ (1) – so why should they object to borrowing money to pay for their higher education?

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge sees university fees as a ‘good investment’, and castigates prospective students with the tart assertion that there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch’. ‘Should the dustman continue to subsidise the doctor or should the doctor contribute towards the cost of their own education?’, she demanded (2).

And so, in the current tedious debate about higher education funding and the ins and outs of top-up fees v graduate tax v status quo, the government has answered the question that has vexed politicians and the educational establishment for decades. What are universities for? To sell education to their consumer students. It’s supply and demand – students want higher education, so they will pay for it. And why should they not pay for it? Higher education, after all, is of no benefit to anybody but themselves.

Many have balked at the depiction of universities as second-hand car-dealers and students as credit-savvy shoppers, but there’s little new about this image. The process of turning higher education into a consumer experience has been going on for years. The notion that universities might have an important role to play for society as a whole is assumed to belong to the (original) era of flared trousers, beehive hair and platform shoes. Then, an educated elite was seen as just as important to the running of society as collecting rubbish from the street; and just as the graduate would pay tax for the dustman, so the dustman should cough up for the philosopher.

Now, university is universally accepted as a personal perk – something that individuals do to advance their own careers and boost their own self-esteem. It’s like finishing school, but less selective, and the choice is not Switzerland but somewhere like Oxford or Hull. You can learn anything from literature to tourism to business management; it doesn’t really matter, so long as You have The Experience. And whatever you study, it’s a bit difficult to justify to the dustman.

This sea-change in the meaning ascribed to the university has had dire consequences for education. Because higher education is assumed to have no broader social benefit, the emphasis is placed upon what kind of experience students want to have.

When it comes to the courses on offer, the priority is choice – hundreds of different subjects in hundreds of different combinations, regardless of their academic merit. Students want a degree, so the priority is that they get one, regardless of the standard of their work. And students, being young people, are unlikely to kick up a fuss if they are denied many hours of tuition or much academic pressure, so the priority becomes allowing them to have a good time. In all of this, education – real, rigorous, academic learning – falls by the wayside.

Consumer-led higher education, in short, is not a good thing. But these changes have happened without students having to pay top-up fees. They were already happening when grants were still (at least notionally) in existence; when the student loans scheme started; when the flat-rate tuition fee was introduced. And while it might look like those arguing against top-up fees and a graduate tax are trying to go against this trend, appearances are deceptive.

The arguments that emphasise the need for equality, access and anti-elitism in higher education are just as responsible for the transformation of higher education into individual life experience as are those demanding that students (or their parents) put their hands in their pockets. Nobody is putting the case for a rigorous higher education based on academic merit, on the grounds that society needs its thinkers. Rather, the anti-fees brigade is calling for finishing school for everybody, on the grounds that all individuals should be able to have this experience.

The argument that is posed against top universities, such as Oxford and Imperial, charging substantial top-up fees is that this would create an elite, two-tier system. Top-up fees would enable the creation of better universities, but on the basis that only richer students could go there. This is undoubtedly true. But if higher education has become a consumer experience, geared around the desires of, and benefits to, individual students, why shouldn’t students get what they pay for? You don’t have arguments about equality of access brought in relation to other consumer goods – say, carpets or cars, or even lunches. What makes higher education so special?

Here, the anti-fees lobby is a bit stumped. Because the ‘anti-elitist’ principle upon which their arguments rely has already eroded precisely what is so special about higher education – namely, academic merit.

For the past few years, top universities have been hammered by the charge that they are ‘elitist’. By relying on academic standards to admit students on to courses, they have discriminated against students from poorer backgrounds, who have not had the level of education that allows them to gain top grades and compete with those from public schools or the posher comprehensives. By using interviews to sort through which grade-A students are more suitable than others for the course, they have also discriminated against poorer students, because those from public schools and posher comps apparently have more confidence and social skills than those from less affluent areas.

Every initiative from introducing a patronising system of postcode subsidies, in order to bribe universities into taking students from poor areas, to modifying admissions procedures and the demands of the course to level the playing field, has been thrown at top universities in order to make them less ‘elitist’. The principle that can sort the stronger students from the weaker ones – academic merit – has been eschewed as unfair and discriminatory (and the ongoing scandal over A-level grades doesn’t help) (3).

Which means that, really, there is no way in which universities can safely sort the students they want from those they don’t. Which means that, really, you might as well make your judgement based on ready cash – and sort out the odd dilapidated building while you’re at it.

For top universities, top-up fees are merely a pragmatic response to the cash-strapped, academically insecure situation they find themselves in (a situation which, it should be noted, they helped to create). And while such a system is hardly the answer to the current, consumer-driven, confused state of British higher education, it is hard to see why such a system would make things so much worse. Unless, of course, you support the ideal put forward by the anti-elitist lobby – a bog-standard finishing school for all, giving everybody an equally mediocre education.

For all Charles Clarke’s posturing about elites being a ‘fact of life’ and quite a good thing too (4), the bog-standard mass finishing school is what the UK government ultimately seems to want. New Labour has been at the forefront of the attack on ‘elitism’ (most famously, with Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Laura Spence affair), and keeps on demanding that 50 percent of young people gain a place at university (regardless of whether they might want to go, or what they might learn).

Yet while proposing this vision of higher education as an extended outreach project, the government lacks the conviction required to spend public money. The only case it can make for going to college is one based narrowly on individual earnings – the student benefits, so the student pays – and the only case for top-up fees is breathtakingly short-term (we want the cash in the bag, now!).

This is the politics of the checkout, a far cry from dreaming spires. I’m glad to be a graduate – if only to be safely out of it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Government battles on top-up fees, BBC News, 22 November 2002

(2) ‘No free lunch’ students told, BBC News, 15 November 2002

(3) See Test of authority and Examining the scandal, by Jennie Bristow

(4) Labour wants ‘elites for all’, BBC News, 29 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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