Turning the Ivory Towers into a skills factory

Today’s yawn-inducing debate about how higher education should be funded reflects a profound uncertainty about what higher education is for.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

How to fund British universities?

It is a dismal question for a dismal debate. And it’s a question that has been recurring with depressing regularity ever since the New Labour government introduced the first top-up fees 12 years ago. Nothing seems to break the repetitive cycle of argument and counter-argument. Critics of spending cuts and/or raising tuition fees will declare that universities are vital: vital to the UK economy, vital to overcoming social inequality, vital to our collective future. Supporters of spending cuts and/or raising tuition fees will argue that universities are not vital enough. The courses take too long; graduates are not sufficiently economically productive; and besides, the government has already spent too much on this collective future.

Unfortunately, the publication of Lord Browne’s university spending review today, commissioned under New Labour’s tenure, will not alter the narrow, almost entirely economic parameters of this debate around higher education. In fact, if the responses so far are any indication, it is more likely to intensify the economic focus of the discussion. Hence the substance of the reaction so far seems to be around whether to remove the upper limit on tuition fees currently set at £3,290 or to come up with some sort of interest rate on student loans tiered according to whatever a particular graduate subsequently earns. Edifying it is not.

The problem is that the value of higher education is conceived almost entirely from the perspective of economics. So from a social perspective, its ostensible purpose is to increase GDP; from an individual perspective it’s the guarantee – and justification for – a higher salary. Because of this, the argument for increasing the funding burden on students almost makes itself, as Boris Johnson clearly found on Monday: ‘It is hardly progressive that people on low incomes should pay in their taxes for the university education of students who will go on to earn about 40 per cent more than those with no qualifications’, he wrote in his Telegraph column.

To such an argument, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, had little to offer other than a yelp of baby-doomer self-pity: ‘A generation who will already struggle over housing and pensions, as well as increased bills for health and social care, will be asked to pick up the tab for excesses they did not themselves enjoy and mistakes they did not make, by being forced to pay for spending cuts.’ Luckily, in keeping with the bean-counting tenor of the discussion, Porter did have one killer alternative to higher tuition fees and spending cuts in his armoury: ‘A sophisticated graduate tax system.’ A place at the Treasury beckons him.

But wait. A Guardian columnist dissents: ‘The graduate tax does have serious problems. It would have been in effect a new layer of income tax, in some ways progressive, in other ways not. It would mean different generations being taxed at different rates, and those who had “made it” without going to college being taxed at a lower rate. What message would that have sent? It would put quite a lot of ambitious people off going to university, or at least ensure they didn’t go to a British one.’

Underwriting this disagreement, however, is the same monetising view of education shared by parties as ostensibly in conflict as Boris Johnson and the quasi-radical NUS. They all assume that the point of higher education, the reason for studying, is better earnings, just as New Labour always assumed that the societal point of higher education was national wealth. Hence, in the proud words of the 2003 New Labour white paper, The Future of Higher Education, students are at university for the ‘acquisition of skills’. The point being that skills sell. In his first speech as secretary of state for education in 2007, Labour’s John Denham continued in this vein of justification: ‘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.’

Little wonder that as the cuts bite, the solely economic justification for higher education has taken on a meaner hue. Hence, at the end of last year, we had then business secretary Lord Mandelson calling for cheaper, fast-track, two-year degrees instead of the conventional three. And earlier this month, current business secretary Vince Cable gave a speech arguing that only ‘commercially useful’ science degrees should be government-funded.

There is of course a big, gaping education-shaped hole at the heart of this debate, over which critics and supporters alike build ever-more torturous funding structures. That is, what is higher education for? If the only answer to that question is economic, then the current debate takes on a purely technical aspect: where to cut and upon whom to place the funding burden.

But there is an alternate, humanistic view of higher education that stretches from the recently beatified John Henry Newman, via Matthew Arnold, right up to the 1963 government-backed Robbins Report on giving more social classes the opportunity to study. And it’s a view that conceives of education, of subject-centred learning and research, as a good in itself. As the Robbins 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.’ Such arguments for higher education conceive its value in non-monetary terms. Its ends were not seen as extrinsic to education; they were intrinsic.

Of course one cannot simply resuscitate such ideals. The historical conditions – a sense of Britain as a world power, with a world mission – that enabled Matthew Arnold, for instance, to talk confidently of the universal importance of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ are long gone. But right now, with the supporters of higher education parroting the same vacuous, bean-counting nonsense as its critics, there needs to at least be an attempt to address the purpose of education in terms other than those of the dismal science.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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