What are students for again?
Recently Giles at Freethinking Economist had an interesting post about the need to ‘free the market’ for universities and allow the introduction of variable tuition fees. As ever with Giles’ posts, despite his utter liberal numptiness his argument is well-made and sourced, and he also links to two documents produced by Julian Astle for his liberal think-tank ‘Centre Forum’: a paper from November 2008 arguing the case for the LibDems dropping their opposition to tuition fees, and one from 2006 arguing a wider case for a fee-based system in the context of greatly increased numbers of students.
I’ve now had time to read both papers. I can’t pretend to do them full justice here, other than to note that they are excellently written and well researched; the 2006 paper even gives a very helpful account of the recent history of the stage-by-stage move from a grant system to a loan system, the details of which I’ll happily admit I really hadn’t understood properly until recently.
In essence, though, the papers argue that tuition fees are justified because a) there is no evidence that they drive away students from poorer backgrounds b) some of the proposals/systems for ensuring access to university actually end up favouring students from wealthier backgrounds and are, effectively, regressive.
Instead of pouring money into this part of the system in an effort to fix what doesn’t need fixing, Julian argues, we’d be much better pumping the same money into the bit of the overall system which DOES need fixing: the inequities and injustices in early years education which lead to young people from poorer backgrounds not getting enough qualification at school in order then to go to university.
The case is well-argued, and I really do recommend reading the papers in full.
But I still have a problem. Well two problems. The argument is well made, and I absolutely agree that early years education is what matters most of all, but the argument still rests on two implicit assumptions about university education.
The first assumption is that students should pay for their own education at tertiary level, and that there should and can be be no return to the pre-1990 system of a) no individual fees b) means tested maintenance grants rather than repayable loans (under whatever terms). While this assumption is implicit in Julian’s paper, Giles makes it explicit in his post:
It makes sense to subsidize it a little, because good educations yield great externalities for all of us. But most of the benefit is privately enjoyed, and in a time of fiscal strain it makes sense to charge more for it, rather than tax the less educated.
While this is indeed a commonly held assumption, I’m afraid I don’t buy it.
Why is university education for a certain percentage of the population deemed to be a private benefit, and therefore chargeable to the individual, while provision of health care to a certain percentage of the population deemed to have enough externalities to make it worth funding through general taxation?
Indeed, if taken in purely utilitarian terms, it could be argued that the health service has much lower externalities than university education, because most people receive by far their biggest input from the health services when they’re too old to be economically, and perhaps even socially, productive, so that by far biggest share of health is ‘privately enjoyed’.
I don’t think Giles would argue for the total privatisation of health care, but that is what his logic implies. While he argues (in the comments) with this logic, saying that we don’t expect food to be totally socialized because it also has externalities, the point is that as a modern welfare state we do in fact recognise and cater for the externalities of decent nutrition for all citizens, directly though the Free School Meals programme, for example, and indirectly through benefit payments. We do this because there is an external benefit to society, over and above the food eaten by individuals, in living in a civilised society where you don’t generally see people starving in the street.
Even without comparisons, the argument that higher education benefits are ‘privately enjoyed’ simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Everyone benefits from the fact that people go to university. As an extreme example, it would be ridiculous to argue that Richard Branson does not benefit from university educations, simply because he didn’t go to university himself. He benefits directly from the expertise his thousands of university-educated workers provide him ,from his pilots to his lawyers to his media creatives to his accountants. But it’s not just Richard Branson and his ilk. I, and everyone around me, benefits from the fact that people who have learned how to do stuff really well, whether it’s build bridge that don’t fall down or write books we like, provide those services to a wider public. These are all obvious externalities.
Why then, if we are content as part of the post-war welfare statement settlement, to socialize some costs either wholly or partly, on the basis that we all benefit one way or another, are we suddenly so reluctant even to consider a (re)socialization of university costs?
Well, the most obvious reason is that there is now a well-established mindset about taxation which simply puts beyond the pale any concept of paying for people to go for university out of general taxation, and of using progressive taxation to ensure that the rich pay most for universities to do their thing, because they get the most externalized benefit from it whether or not they have been to university themselves (Richard Branson uses lots of lawyers trained at university at no cost to him, while I do not).
Of itself, this makes little sense both for the reasons of externality comparison I set out above, but also because graduate repayments are, as Julian Astle points out in his 2006 paper, pretty well like income tax anyway, though clearly at too flat a rate. To a great extent, all we’re doing with tuition fee loans and maintenance loans is, at great administrative expense, bolting on a poorly worked out income tax to another slightly less poorly worked out income tax, simply in order to avoid call it an income tax.
The ”repayments’ into the system you’d get from a general taxation system would in fact be repayable over much the same 25 year period as tuition fees are currently paid by roughly the same people (because higher income generally follows from higher education levels), and the possibility of default is built into the student loan system anyway.
But behind this political unwillingness to countenance general taxation as the key student funding route (the bulk of funding for costs not directly tied to students come from general taxation anyway) lies, I contend, something of much greater concern.
This is quite simply that the idea of general taxation to fund students is out of keeping with the ideological construct of what it is to be a student – a construct developed in the 1980s under Thatcher but now so deeply embedded in UK society that it is no longer remarked upon as being a key historical development.
This notion of the ideological construction of what it is to be a student links us back to Julian Astle’s second key assumption in his impressive paper This is that getting more young people from poorer backgrounds into university is THE key task, one which he argues cogently enough not hampered by tuition fees but rather by prior educational opportunity and attainment.
As I’ve said above, that’s fair enough, and I’m all for providing those earlier opportunities. But for me, getting working class people into university is not THE only issue; the second issue is what they do, and how they identify themselves as students, as and when they get there.
The real hegemonic brilliance of a move towards individual tuition and maintenance loans during the 1980s was, I contend, that it furthered a process already underway of making students into units of potential economic activity and production. In so doing, it moved us all, including students, away from an appreciation – either implicit or explicit. that to be both working class AND part of a ‘student body’ (is that term used at all now) was to be part of the great post-war settlement wrung from capital . In less politicised terms, students came to be seen, and see themselves, not as entitled to an expanding supply of tertiary education whatever their later intentions (or lack of them), but as simply a debtor to society who had to pay back into the system as soon as possible.
And this is where we are today. Universities themselves are marked in part according to the percentage of people thy feed into the employment. Students are expected to comply with educational system, as passive learners using ‘learning resource centres’ rather than active students using libraries to investigate the world for themselves and then to challenge it if they see fit.
In a recent post Dave quotes 1968 student radical Daniel Cohen-Bendit:
The student, at least, in the modern system of higher education, still preserves a considerable degree of personal freedom, if he chooses to exercise it. He does not have to earn his own living, his studies do not occupy all his time and he has no foreman at his back. He rarely has a wife and children to feed. He can, if he so chooses, take extreme political positions without any personal danger…the ensuing struggle is especially threatening to the authorities as the student population keeps going up by leaps and bounds.
While Dave quotes Cohn-Bendit disapprovingly in the light of his more recent political failings, this sense of what studentship of this post-war settlement ilk might be about is still worth holding on to. Being part of a student body SHOULD be about scaring the fuck out of the system with challenging thoughts and actions; it should be about experimentation, whether in philosophy or engineering or even social entrepreneurship. Such an aspiration shouldn’t even be just a particularly leftwing position.
What we have at the moment, though, as reflected in the tuition fees non-debate, is the tertiary education equivalent of the ‘careers advice’ now being provided to thousands of primary school children – a system where we train young people not to be anything other than their parents.
While this is not all about fees and loans, I would argue that freeing young people from any expectation that they must conform enough to pay back their dues must be an important step in freeing them more generally to, quite literally, ‘think for themelves’. It is then for the wider left to be in a position, exactly as the French Left WASN’T in a position in the late 1960s for the reasons Dave sets out in his must-read posts, to seek to both influence, and be influenced by any new radicalism – whether philosophical or tactical – that emerges. The British (and European left) should seek to see its student bodies not as encumbrances, or as cannon fodder, but (perhaps as the Iranian people now see its students) as a great hope worth fostering and supporting.
So, yes, I accept that in one sense Giles and Julian may be talking common sense about tuition fees and the fact that they may enhance widening participation in university education, or at the very least not hinder it (though I note that since I thought about this piece Left Foot Forward has taken a different view on this from Giles in his understandably self-congratulatory post). In the paradigm of ‘economically useful’ students, they may be talking common sense.
The challenge for the left, in what I hope will be a continued campaign for the abolition of all fees and loans in favour of free access and payments through general taxation, will be uncommon sense about what students are really for.