Two brains or no brains?

Universities Minister David Willetts – a man whose intellectual achievements (in the context of the Tory Party, anyway)has led to him being known as “two brains” has given an interview to the Guardian in which he claims that the current system of student funding means that students are “a burden on the taxpayer”.  The context is that the new coalition government appears to be setting the scene for a huge hike in student tuition fees.

There are two approaches to this issue: the economic and the social.  I’ll look at each of these in turn.

From an economic point of view, it’s difficult to know what Willetts means by “burden”.  I live in a city with two universities.  Several thousand students, supported by loans, live here, rent homes here, spend their money in our supermarkets, and, yes, in pubs and clubs.   The two universities directly provide thousands of jobs, and indirectly many more.  While you get plenty of moaning from the usual gangs of reactionary miseries in the letters columns of our local paper, there’s no doubt that the funding behind these students plays an important role in sustaining the city’s economy.  While it’s quite possible to see how a government fixated with cutting expenditure might come to the conclusion that this is a “burden”, I’d argue that this was an ideological rather than an empirical conclusion.

Secondly, the social issues.

Tony Benn has consistently argued – and I agree with him – that recent trends in student funding, leading as they have to situations where students leave university tens of thousands of pounds in debt, ensure that graduates become good, compliant employees.  When you’re immediately burdened by huge debt you have to get your head down, accept corporate values, and work.

Willetts says in the interview I’ve referenced above that students should see student debt as a down-payment on higher tax, rather than a debt.  But that presupposes that graduates will earn more; not an assumption that stands up in many cases (which is why there is a desperate shortage of well-qualified science teachers).  In an society in which a first degree is becoming a default qualification the marginal value of that first degree is declining.  Many of the most lucrative jobs remain in sectors like the law and finance where there remain crucial financial barriers to entry – periods of unpaid internship or pupillage which ensure that only those backed by substantial parental wealth get the opportunity to participate.  And of course an increase in tuition fees at a time when the marginal value of a degree is falling will have the inevitable effect of pushing those who are not backed by parental wealth away from the more prestigious educational establishments – or out of higher education at all.

The only conclusion one can draw is that this approach – whether intentional or not – is to entrench yet further a situation in which higher education is based on parental ability to pay.  The coalition philosophy of higher education – at least – appears to be encapsulated by Ivan Illich’s comment about how formal education seeks to institutionalise the head start as achievement.

The effect of pushing up tuition fees will be to widen even further the gap between rich and poor, and to deny young people from poor and middle-income backgrounds access to the education to which  – on the basis of their ability – they would be entitled (let’s not forget that the average wage in Britain is £25,000 per year, and middle income is a long way from where the right-wing press pretends it is).  It means more Old Etonians at Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities taking the most lucrative (if perhaps not the most useful) jobs, and persuading themselves it’s because they’re cleverer.

It looks very much as if what is in effect a piece of social engineering is being dressed up as economics.

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