We can’t afford no education

No doubt when we have perfected a method of  killing Russians by dropping Pope and Dryden on their heads, the English department will enjoy equal research funding!” – A Very Peculiar Practice, 1988

So, not entirely unexpectedly, the coalition’s whopping increase in tuition fees has (narrowly) passed the Commons vote. As one of a large number of people who are finding their Lib Dem votes taste like ashes in their mouth (dreadful mixed metaphor, I know), I’ll be writing a much longer blog post soon about my feelings towards the coalition and my generation’s relationship with politics as a whole. But in light of today’s shaky victory for the coalition, I thought it worth going in to my problems on this policy in particular.

There’s a very telling story recalled by Stewart Lee on Youtube regarding Mrs Thatcher’s views on liberal higher education. Apparently, when told by a student that said student was studying Ancient Norse Literature, her only comment was, “what a luxury”. And that’s the Conservative view on Higher Education in a nutshell, and the real ideology underpinning a policy that’s been grossly misrepresented by almost all concerned – even, on occasion, its opponents. Education, the argument runs, is only of value if that value can be quantified monetarily. As Stewart points out, if you struggle to justify an Arts degree by pointing out that theatre tours make money, you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re seeing it in precisely those terms. By that argument, the study of Shakespeare that Michael Gove holds so dear would have been abandoned centuries ago. No money in it, you see.

But let’s start, in fairness to the policy’s apologists, by wondering if they’re right when they say it’s an improvement over the current system. So, despite a potential threefold increase in tuition fees, most students will end up paying less. This is actually true. When the word ‘progressive’ is bandied about, most of us disagree. But it is progressive, in the economic sense of the word – that is to say, the more money you earn, the more of your debt you’ll pay back. Consequently, unlike the fixed payments under the current system, it could be seen as fairer. Plus, as Vince Cable seems to be constantly trying to tell us, the threshold by which you’ll pay it back has been raised from £15k a year to £21k a year. So you’ll not pay anything for a greater length of time than now. And thirty years after you graduate, any money you haven’t paid back will be written off as a bad debt.

Put like that, it’s hard to see why anyone should find it a problem. But the reason they’re rioting on the streets of London tonight is that most young people going to university don’t necessarily do Economics. You can break it down all you like, but to a 17 year old contemplating Higher Education, the prospect of a £40,000 debt hanging over your head for the next thirty years is a pretty fearsome one, no matter how favourable the repayment rates. If that had been around when I went to uni, I’m pretty sure I would have had very serious second thoughts. No matter how much Clegg and Cable bang on about social mobility, the pure fact is that the very prospect of that debt is going to put the less well off seriously off going into Higher Education.

And the basic issue where I disagree with the coalition – and the Labour Party – entirely is that in my opinion, more money should be being put into Higher Education. I managed to go to university, despite being from a less than well off background, because the State funded it. Neil Kinnock, in 1983, made a speech where he was rightly proud of being the first one in his family to go university – because of the Welfare State his party founded. And what we’re seeing now is yet another nail in the coffin of that Welfare State, something the Conservative Party have been trying, albeit surreptitiously, to dismantle almost since its inception.

The State used to provide a full grant, by which the less well off could have all of their university education funded. Not just the tuition, but the living expenses too – there were no student loans necessary unless you bought too much beer (I did). The dismantling of free Higher Education for all was actually started by that nemesis of the left Margaret Thatcher, who froze the grants in 1990, to a level at which they remain now, twenty years of inflation later. Her spiritual child Tony Blair continued the chipping away by introducing Tuition fees, and it’s no surprise that the current Conservative government (face it, it is one) would want to carry that on.

I’ve had a long chat with my friend James, who finds my views incomprehensible. Surely, he argues, if prospective students did the sums and were committed enough and well-informed enough, they’d see that the new policy is no kind of disincentive. I’d agree with him – if it weren’t for the fact that tens of thousands of young people don’t see it that way. A 17 year old wanting to study English Literature probably can’t do a cost/benefit analysis and might (hopefully) not even know what one is. I’d say the massive demonstrations against the policy show that people don’t see the benefits. All they see is a giant debt for the next thirty years. And that’s enough to disincentivise those who aren’t that good at sums – like, say, the ones doing Arts subjects.

An argument I’ve heard many times now – most recently from an MP on Radio 4, though I forget which one – is why taxpayers should foot the bill for other people to attend university. This is what I believe should be called the ‘screw you Jack I’m all right’ policy. The obvious subtext is that nobody should pay for State services they don’t personally use, and has often been pointed out, its logical extrapolation is that nobody should pay for the National Health Service unless they’re ill. Although David Cameron would probably love that – it’s called private healthcare, and it’s what the Republicans in America are fighting tooth and nail to defend. From my point of view, as a childless man, I could use this to justify not paying the part of my taxes used to fund schools. But I won’t, because I genuinely believe that a morally responsible state has a duty to provide certain things for its citizens and that all those citizens should be responsible for paying for them , regardless of whether they personally make use of them.  Interestingly, nobody ever disagrees with that about the NHS. It’s when you have to prioritise what else a morally responsible State should provide that the arguments begin. I see an opportunity for Higher Education as one of those priorities. Clearly others would rather spend the money on State-sponsored Botox treatment.

But the coalition have been given a golden excuse to carry out these draconian reforms. The buzzword is ‘deficit’. Most people, and I count myself among them, find economics a baffling, abstract topic. All we know is, there’s a deficit between how much we make as a country and how much we owe. It’s big, and it needs to get smaller. Consequently, the government can do more or less what it likes, providing it reduces the deficit. And this has been the biggest argument for the cutting of university funding and the increase in tuition fees.

The trouble is, at least as far as I can see, that this is what’s technically known as ‘bollocks’. The increased fees aren’t due to start until 2012, and will in the majority of cases, be funded by student loans from government coffers that won’t be paid back for many years, if at all. How this can have any impact on the current deficit is impossible to fathom. My friend Richard, normally a defender of the coalition, has done the sums and found the policy pretty unjustifiable on his blog – check it out, he’s far better at Economics than I am.

And that’s what really gets my goat, more than the Lib Dems reneging on campaign promises or the Conservatives trying to dismantle the Welfare State. It’s underhanded and dishonest. What they’re really doing is using the deficit as an excuse to carry out ideological policies long held by the Conservative Party, propped up by the increasingly foolish Lib Dems. Yes, the policy won’t prohibit the less well off from attending university. But it will put them off. Meanwhile, the rich can attend with impunity, as they always have. In practice, as a social measure this is returning us to the pre-1946 era when the only ones with degrees were the wealthy.

Don’t get me wrong – I know there is a real problem with the proliferation of university degrees. Labour’s target of having 50% of the populace attend university has cheapened the value of a degree to such an extent that the jobs market is flooded with Media Studies graduates flipping burgers, and anyone with no degree at all is seriously disadvantaged no matter how suitable for the job they may be. But attacking this problem by favouring the rich at university, while typical Conservative policy, is morally indefensible. Instead, perhaps we should try and re–engineer the education system as a whole, so that only the most qualified can actually get to university. Without wanting to seem like a grumpy old man, that’s how it was in my day – plenty of people wanted to go to university but didn’t get the necessary grades, regardless of the State funding. In contrast, my friend Sam – 19 years old – has a university place despite pretty poor A Level grades. Doing, I think, some kind of Media Studies course. An overhaul – a massive, fundamental one – is needed for the education system as a whole. And not just Michael Gove banging on about returning the nation’s children to the three ‘R’s.

But what it really boils down to is that the students are being asked to foot the bill for an 80% cut in University funding, massively disproportionate to the other cuts carried out in the name of the deficit. And, in the spirit of Maggie Thatcher’s opinion of Ancient Norse Literature, what funding there is is being reserved exclusively for Maths, Science and Engineering. So those much vaunted Humanities subjects that form part of Gove’s new English Baccalaureate count for precisely sod all at university level. Plainly, the coalition are happy to have rote knowledge of Shakespeare drilled into children, but heaven forfend they get paid money to actually think about it.

So it’s bigger than tuition fees, bigger than the selfish political aims of the National Union of Students. The whole University system is under attack, its value judged solely in terms of its profits. And that’s not, and never has been what universities are about. Regardless of your views on how irresponsibly the protestors have acted, regardless of the poor, hard done by Prince of Wales and his sadly damaged Rolls-Royce Phantom, the issue here is one of civilisation. Tuition fees are the tip of the iceberg.