The modern university: you get what you pay for

It is the marketisation of higher education, its transformation into a glorified job-training scheme, that sustains the case for tuition fees.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Universities UK, a higher education action group based in Britain, has proposed raising university tuition fees. For some students, it would mean a hike in fees to around £7,000 per year, putting them in serious debt for the first few years of their post-university working life.

The life of the modern student looks set to become even tougher. The Daily Mail is worried about the impact on middle-class families, with its frontpage headline warning: ‘New threat to the middle classes: universities’ plan to double student fees could leave millions in debt into their 50s.’ Others are concerned for less well-off families, worried that increased debt might put them off going to university altogether.

Unfortunately, however, the opponents of tuition fees are doing a bad job of opposing them. To stand up, meaningfully, against the idea of paying through the nose for university qualifications, it is necessary to go further than pointing out how unfair it all is, and instead address the degraded view of higher education today which has made possible its transformation into a commodity.

How the perception of students has changed. Ten years ago, students were rarely mentioned without their ‘bloody’ prefix. Seen as pot noodle-eating, daytime TV-devouring, state-funded bundles of uselessness, many people mocked and felt little sympathy for these ‘moaners’.

But then in 1998, acting on the recommendations of the UK Dearing Report into higher education, the New Labour government introduced £1,000 per year tuition fees. There was an outraged reaction, both from students and their newfound champions in the world of radical activism and media commentary. The outrage increased in 2004, when variable tuition fees were rolled out, with a cap of £3,000 per year. By this point students were no longer the object of ‘get-a-wash’ scorn. They were now seen as debt-heaving martyrs, forced to work part-time just to scrape together enough money to be able to binge-drink.

Since then, the widespread pity-the-debt-ridden-students sentiment has intensified. This might explain the government’s seeming reluctance to revisit the issue of further increasing fees. However, where election-savvy politicians fear to tread, cash-strapped universities have waded in: this week Universities UK published its horrifically titled Changing Landscapes: Future Scenarios for Variable Tuition Fees, with its proposal for an increase.

The report’s publication was accompanied by a widely reported BBC News survey revealing that two thirds of university vice-chancellors wanted to raise tuition fees, with more than half wanting a minimum cap of £5,000 per year. Nudged into action, higher education minister David Lammy, clearly scared of saying anything that sounds fiscal, opted for the sporting vernacular: ‘There is an important debate to be had now, which is about how we maintain the world class status of our higher education sector.’ (1)

With the prospect of a considerable hike in tuition fees looming on the horizon, the criticism has already started. National Union of Students (NUS) president Wes Streeting declared: ‘This is not a good thing. In the context of the current recession, it is extremely arrogant for vice chancellors to be fantasising about charging their students even higher fees and plunging them into over £32,000 of debt.’ (2) Long-time opponent of tuition fees, Labour MP Paul Farrelly, joined in: ‘We need to increase participation by students from poorer backgrounds, not price them out of going to university at all.’ (3)

That radical student rag the Daily Mail complains that higher fees will deter ‘intelligent school leavers’ from applying to university. This poses something of a problem, seeing as, according to the Mail, ‘the key to securing Britain’s long-term prosperity is to encourage the nation’s brightest young people, of every social class, to acquire a higher education’ (4).

Critics of tuition fees do have a point. The decision to take on, for instance, £30,000 worth of debt for the sake of a place at university could never be taken lightly. And for those without parents wealthy enough to bail them out should that dream job at Lehman Brothers fall through, it may well be enough to put them off HE. But is that enough of an argument against tuition fees? Does not the rhetoric of ‘increased participation’ and ‘widening access’, taken as virtues in themselves, ignore what exactly it is that young people are being encouraged to participate in these days?

This is the problem. Whether it’s the Daily Mail arguing that more graduates will produce a more prosperous Britain, or the president of the NUS worrying that less well-off students will be reluctant to take on more debt given the uncertain economic climate, education is grasped almost solely as something that either contributes to the wealth of the nation or as something that will improve an individual’s career earnings. Either way, the value of a degree is determined in economic terms: it will make an individual that little bit pricier on the labour market.

Unfortunately, it is precisely this utilitarian view of higher education that makes it easy for free marketeers like Oliver Kamm to argue that the ‘burden of university fees should fall on those who gain the benefit of university education, namely the students’ (5). In other words, if you want to earn more, you must first pay your dues.

Underpinning the fees debate – indeed the thing that makes the fees debate possible – is this contemporary degraded idea of university education. Gone is the ivory tower; in its place stands the glass-fronted hub of much-mooted, never-seen economic growth. The establishment of the UK Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills is itself testament to the shiny new role laid out for the twenty-first century university. In his first speech as secretary of state for the department in 2007, John Denham stated: ‘To compete and prosper in this world, to respond to the needs of leading global and national businesses, we must enable many thousands more people to study and graduate each year. To become a world leader in skills, as Lord Leitch recommended, we must aim for at least 40 per cent of adults to have higher level qualifications by 2020.’ (6)

With this dream looking less likely as a result of the recession, Denham attacked the prevalence of traditional subjects like English or Classics on the education curriculum on the basis that we need more training in higher education: ‘It is fair to ask whether… students have sufficient chance to gain higher levels of skills and qualifications in our education system.’ (7) In his view, universities need to be, well, more practical and less airy-fairy.

The transformation of higher education into a glorified, paid-for training service has, likewise, turned what might once have been aspirant scholars into very demanding customers. Students today come not so much to learn, as to consume the ‘educational product’ on which they have just splashed several thousand pounds. In the proud words of the 2003 government white paper, The Future of Higher Education, students are at university for the ‘acquisition of skills’ (8). Their future earning potential depends on it. In this sense, the NUS’s alternative to tuition fees – a loan to be paid back dependent on earnings – seems like the demand of little more than a consumer watchdog.

It has not always been this way. In his 1853 treatise The Idea of a University, JH Newman defined it as ‘a place [for] teaching universal knowledge’ (9). Such notions of the integrity of university education were not nineteenth-century oddities. They were informed by a deep, anti-utilitarian sense of the intrinsic value of culture and knowledge, something perhaps best expressed by Newman’s contemporary, Matthew Arnold, as the ability to ‘turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. The university enshrined such freedom. It demarcated a place outside the demands and interests of commerce and business. The value of education bore no relation to monetary value; indeed its ‘uselessness’ was its virtue. Such humanistic ideas of the university accompanied the expansion of higher education provision in the 1960s. In the 1963 Robbins Report on giving more social classes the opportunity to attend university, the committee wrote ‘[the] search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education, and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery’ (10).

Now, however, both critics and advocates of tuition fees share an entirely different conception of the university. It is no longer to be justified in terms of ‘universal knowledge’ or ‘the search for truth’ but in terms of ‘transferable skills’ and ‘service provision’. It is no longer valuable in itself but insofar as it benefits something else – namely the economy. Is it any surprise, given this outlook, that students can be expected to pay for their education and that everything comes to be about monetary value and fiscal benefits? To oppose tuition fees properly it is necessary to articulate the non-economic, integral value of education, to defend the autonomy of the university itself. The language of business and commerce will offer no succour.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill considered the internal Labour Party clash over tuition fees a feeble excuse for politics. Emily Hill detected a degree of small-mindedness at British universities. Having accepted the marketisation of higher education,James Panton argued, critics of top-up fees lost the argument. Edward Hall described how students helped to undermine industrial action by British university lecturers. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Universities push for higher fees, BBC News, 17 March 2009

(2) Universities push for higher fees, BBC News, 17 March 2009

(3) Universities push for higher fees, BBC News, 17 March 2009

(4) New threat to the middle classes: Universities’ plan to double student fees could leave millions in debt into their 50s, Daily Mail, 17 March 2009

(5) University fees: higher, please, TimesOnline, 17 March 2009

(6) Reforms to support for students in higher education, Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, June 2007

(7) Denham says no return for polys, BBC News, 24 February 2009

(8) Cited in Selling out universities, by James Panton, 14 January 2004

(9) See The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman

(10) Cited in Selling out universities, by James Panton, 14 January 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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