In the student fees débâcle there are two very different strands to be considered. Inevitably, in the hurly-burly of politics, they tend to get mixed up, and that does not help us to see clearly. There is the substantive issue of what it is right to do about financing higher education. Then there are the statements and pledges made by the LibDems in the run up to the May general election, and their decisions since entering the coalition government; and the position of the Labour Party.
The first issue is by far the most difficult to disentangle. It encompasses the principles of what a university education is really for; whether a university education is a “right” or a “privilege”; whether in principle providing it is a social good to be paid for by all of us, or a personal good to be purchased primarily by the beneficiaries; and doubtless many others. I make no claim to have answers, never mind definitive ones, to these questions, but I do think that the narrow issue of whether or not tuition fees should be increased, and how they should be paid back, obscures these other more fundamental points. For what it’s worth, I think we’ve corrupted the purpose of higher education by seeing it principally as an economic instrument, either in service to the economy as a whole, or as a passport to higher earnings for individuals. Students are no longer seen as people with an intrinsic thirst for knowledge, eager to find out about the world: instead they are invited to make calculations about how much more they might earn as a result, and now, of course, how much debt they feel able to take on. Because we’ve started seeing obtaining a degree as a passport to greater wealth, then the whole issue of equality enters the debate when it should in fact be a debate about how many people want to study because they want to know stuff. In the same way, university research is now so inextricably intertwined with commerce, at least in the sciences, that we can have a government that explicitly says that courses seen as economically useful will be supported whilst those that are merely about knowledge or exploration for its own sake will not. And nobody seems to care. It’s only because we’ve now by and large all accepted this instrumentalism that the debate on how the whole edifice should be paid for has arisen. In this basic reorientation from education as an end in itself, that contributes to the common good simply because it expands our collective knowledge, to education as instrument of economic policy, all the subsidiary issues gain their force. The fundamental problem is that when universities are no longer places for people to learn, but places for them to enrich themselves, we trigger a demand that we have no means of supplying. Hence the funding crisis that now confronts us.
Compared with the complexities of the educational issues, the position of the LibDems is simplicity itself. They can protest all they like about the package passed today being more progressive than Labour’s plans; and claim all the credit in the world for having mitigated the Tories’ otherwise unrestrained barbarism; but they cannot escape the simple fact that pledging to abolish something, and then for the sake of political power trebling it instead, is wrong, wrong, wrong. If it isn’t dishonest, then it’s spectacularly incompetent. Deliberately enticing students to vote for you with a promise either you can’t or won’t keep throws petrol on the fire of the electorate’s existing cynicism about politics, and frankly makes the expenses scandal pale into insignificance. If this is the “new politics” I’d rather stick with the old. The lesson is simple: election stump stunts stink.
And what of Labour? Labour politicians who presided over the corruption of educational purpose I described above, and then introduced payment of fees in the first place, have as much moral authority in this matter as the Pope does on paedophilia. Their outrageous attempts now to present themselves as the students’ friends and supporters are no more convincing than were the LibDems’ promises to abolish fees.
Students’ fury about fees, and the LibDems’ sell-out in particular, is I suspect in part more about the growing sense that the deal they’ve been sold – that university is the gateway to economic security – is unravelling before their eyes. No public sector jobs, little prospect of economic growth to make up for them, and now the cheek of being saddled with debt for the privilege of a broken deal: it’s enough to make anyone hurl a brick or two.