Hungry for knowledge or just angry customers?

Tim Black reports from the university cuts protest in London and argues that the biggest problem is the bastardisation of education itself.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

‘I want to see some jumping’, announced University and College Union chief, Sally Hunt, at the throng of protesting students amassed outside Millbank in central London yesterday. ‘Jump’, she shouted, ‘Jump… Jump’. And incredibly, it worked. Several thousand young scholars were jumping up and down for no discernible reason other than they were told to do so.

Still, perhaps it had the desired effect. An hour later, a sizable number of the nation’s brightest had got into 30 Millbank – the home of the Conservative party – and seemed intent on doing… well, something or other. Some glass doors got kicked in, and a fire extinguisher was dropped from on high. In keeping with the best of student traditions, a militant minority even managed to find some sofas to lounge around on in the reception area. Great stuff. Quite what the point of The Assault on Millbank was though remained unclear. Perhaps some genuinely thought, as Socialist Worker’s ‘Free Education Now’ placard suggested, that those evil-bastard Tories were actually holding some bloke called Ed hostage.

Still, if there was something confused and confusing about the photo op-friendly finale, there was little doubt as to why around 50,000 students plus a few lecturers were marching through London. It wasn’t just because, as one insightful chant put it, David Cameron is a wanker. It was, in the words of the most popular placard, to ‘Stop education cuts’. As the chant went, ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’.

A student pleads poverty

For those studying or working in higher education, there is indeed plenty to be worried about. On the back of Lord Browne’s recent higher education funding review, the coalition government has announced that the current HE budget of £7.1 billion is to be cut to £4.2 billion – a startling reduction of 40 per cent. This funding shortfall is supposed to be made up for with a huge hike in tuition fees. Fees are currently capped at £3,290 per year, but under coalition plans universities will be able to charge students up to £6,000 per year. This upper limit could, under unspecified ‘exceptional circumstances’, rise even further, to a prohibitive £9,000 a year. Given that science, engineering, technology and maths are the only subject areas guaranteed future state funding, one can assume that it will be the humanities-based subjects that will end up with extortionate price tags.

So for young people without families wealthy enough to fork out several grand a year just to pay for their course fees and living costs – and, let’s face it, that’s most people – many students will be looking at possible debts of £30,000 by the time they leave university. Admittedly, they won’t have to start paying anything back until they’re earning over £21,000 a year, but it’s still a perturbing prospect according to the plan’s critics.

But the problems afflicting higher education and universities run deeper than the shallow caricature of evil, cuts-happy Tories at Millbank and their duplicitous Lib Dem allies round the corner. There has been a gradual, almost unwitting reformulation of the role of Higher Education as being less of a good thing in itself than being a potential immediate economic and social good. This reformulation has deprived the university of its traditional purpose and replaced it with objectives for which it is intrinsically unsuited.

Protesters gather at Millbank

This might seem counter-intuitive given the recent history of the university sector. It is after all a story of unabashed success, at least in quantitative terms. At the time of the Robbins report in the early 1960s, when a liberal humanist idea of education – that is, of the inherent value of conserving and transmitting all branches of human knowledge – was still deemed central to the university, student numbers stood at around 200,000. By 1990, they rose to 600,000, before a rapid increase saw student numbers reach 1.6million by 1996. The figure currently stands just under two million.

Yet at the same time as the university was transforming itself from being mainly the privilege of the upper-class few into the post-school expectation of the many, its role was changing, too. The ivory towers of popular cliché, insulated from the ‘philistine’ concerns of business and commerce – as Victorian educationist Matthew Arnold would no doubt have put it – were being turned into the glass-plated engines of economic growth, inseparable from the concerns of business and commerce. With this shift in purpose, universities were becoming service providers and students were transformed into customers.

The economic point to the university worked both ways: the UK was ‘adding value’ to its labour market while the expanding number of students looked set to enjoy ever higher wages. So pervasive was this view that the second review of higher education after the Robbins report, the Dearing report in 1998, took the economic justification for universities as a given: ‘Higher education has become central to the economic wellbeing of nations and individuals. The qualities of mind that it develops will be the qualities that society increasingly needs to function effectively.’

And with the Dearing report confidently asserting that ‘on average, those with higher education qualifications currently in the labour market enjoy a significant and sustained private rate of return to their investment’, the recommendation that these student-customers ought now to pay a bit for the privilege of being paid a lot had a certain logic. After all, higher education was here conceived of as an economic good, of immediate use to both society and the individual. Moreover, given University’s supposed ability to improve the earning power of its customers, giving those from less affluent backgrounds more affluent futures, it promised to address social inequalities, too. In fact, was there anything education could not do? Little wonder that in 1996, Tony Blair declared his three priorities to be ‘education, education, education’ and later, a year into his premiership, announced that he wanted 50 per cent of the nation’s youth entering higher education.

The problem was that for all the focus on the social and economic power of education, its actual content was being eroded by two pressures. First, there was the political demand that education should be ‘relevant’. Second, there was the student demand that whatever ability they demonstrate, they must get what they paid for: a degree. This erosion of content didn’t appear to be a problem as long as the economy grew, albeit on the back of a series of asset bubbles; the illusion could be sustained that there was, just about, a causal relationship between a reconfigured higher education sector and continued economic well-being. The correlation was entirely fortuitous, but that didn’t matter – until the economic crash.

Protesters inside 30 Millbank

Hollowed out of its former purpose – to transmit human knowledge to the next generation – education’s defenders are left with little to champion. Yesterday’s protesters looked like little more than angry customers, with the National Union of Students adopting the role of consumer watchdog. It’s all very well invoking the dubious but ubiquitous notion of generational responsibility with slogans such as ‘Don’t Con-Dem the children’, it’s all very New Labour to shout ‘Don’t kill social mobility’, and it’s all just little bit close to a Paris 1968 parody to shout ‘Students and workers, unite and fight’, but if all that you’re really saying is ‘it’s not fair’, or ‘what about me?’, or ‘how much?!?’, then the reaction of two besuited young women out on their lunch break was not too unexpected: ‘I don’t see why we should subsidise that lot.’

A university education needs to be championed as something that is valuable in and of itself. It mustn’t be presented as a means to an end, as a passport to a better job or a more ‘inclusive’ society, because when it palpably fails to guarantee any of those outcomes, questions will be asked. Rather, as John Henry Newman put it in The Idea of a University, it needs to be treasured because of its ‘inutility’, as a value apart from economics. Only then might state funding start to make sense.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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