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What am I so angry about? Is it the rise in student fees, or the fact that Lord Browne says he wants to put students in charge?

October 17, 2010

Why am I so angry about the notion that students should pay for higher education? I’ve got my degree, awarded in the days when fees were covered and maintenance grants awarded. And I’m a university lecturer, so shouldn’t I be delighted that student debt and the income it secures for my institution can only make my own position all the more secure?

Alright, so I’m a dyed in the wool, card carrying member of the looney-left, which means my default position on this sort of thing is to feel outrage. After all the slogan, ‘Knowledge is power’, has been a long standing article of faith for the Left. It was carried on the masthead of old Chartist newspaper, The Poor Man’s Guardian, and it underpinned adult and worker education programmes in the last century.

But I stopped believing a few years ago that education was necessarily the way to fundamental and irreversible social change. This was around the time I was confronted with the fact that although New Labour were putting more young people through higher education than previous generations would have ever thought possible, the gap between rich and poor was still getting bigger, while social mobility was grinding to an ignominious halt.

If more education doesn’t necessarily equal social change then what does it matter to socialists if working class kids are put off higher education by the burden of debt?  Wouldn’t that be a good thing? I’ve entertained the notion previously on this blog that working class kids should boycott university because of the intellectually vacuous courses offered to them, the debt they incur and evidence which points to their exclusion from the top jobs.

I’ve also flirted with the notion that the much lauded economic benefit of producing more and more graduates is greatly exaggerated. In which case, who cares if Browne and the ConDems make a balls of HE? So what if students neglect their studies in favour of part-time jobs to lessen their debt? So what if fees encourage young adults to prolong their dependence on parents, rather than becoming the free, entrepreneurial spirits the government hopes for? So what if students act like customers, exercise their consumer’s prerogative and chose perceived easy options rather than the academically rigourous? What’s the worst that can happen?

But on the other hand, what if Blair was right all along when he said that education is our best economic policy? If that really is the case then all Lord Browne’s review signals is the unabated malady at the fetid heart of British politics — how to manage decline. The hike in fees looks like an admission that the UK is so bolloxed that it can’t even muster the wherewithal to adequately educate its young to make it a serious competitor in the global market. Its future is one of mid-table mediocrity; a feeder club to the serious challengers to the Premiership crown. It’ll be left with a leadership of witless, lacklustre toffs, scared shitless of the uneducated, underclass it created.

Or just maybe the future isn’t so apocalyptic: what if this is an opportunity to get rid of the Gradgrindian influence of the state in HE, with its stultifying audit culture that lays the dead hand of bureaucracy on every initiative that might actually enliven teaching and learning. Maybe the arts and humanities will be freed to emulated groovy West Coast capitalism, with seminar rooms full of space hoppers and bean bags, carpets replaced with astroturf, and ginseng tea rising from fountains in the corridor. Nah, can’t see it myself.

My gut instinct is that the Browne review is just another stupid, ill-thought out response to crisis. But what’s new? It comes in a long and undistinguished line of stupid, ill-thought out responses to crisis. And so, I suspect that under the circumstances we’ll all do that most British of things and muddle by, make do and mend. In my experience, most institutions and organisations work despite the gross idiocy and incompetence of their leaderships, relying on their workers to somehow compensate for the shortcomings in policy and management.

But what really pisses me off about the Browne review is the notion that offering students the gift of consumer sovereignty will somehow improve the quality of higher education. As Browne told Channel 4 News

‘Under these plans, universities can start to vary what they charge but it will be up to students whether they choose the university. The money will follow the student who will follow the quality. The student is no longer taken for granted, the student is in charge.’

Dear God, even if it were possible, why would you want to put students in charge of their education. I know that asserting the authority of teachers and lecturers isn’t very cool these days but it is undeniable that lecturers know better than their students. We might like to believe that the customer is always right but students can’t be. Students by definition should be seeking enlightenment, so to stand the student/lecturer relationship on its head is to disregard expertise, knowledge and learning, and replace it with the unending quest for the Holy Grail of value for money. (I’ve argued this point before.)

In any case, is student empowerment and quality really the rationale behind Browne? Is the financial crisis just the subtext or the catalyst that makes it possible to improve the student experience and raise standards? If so, it’s the first time in my experience that there has been any proposals and a debate about education that didn’t make students and their education entirely subservient to political and economic imperatives. In which case Browne should be welcomed and we should all reflect on how silly we’ve been for decades, not realising that education (and every other service) can be improved by making people pay for it. Why, I shudder with anticipation for the day I can pay to send the two wee Rabs to school, for I will do so happy in the knowledge that the Dunkin Donuts Primary School around the corner is superior to the state funded institution it replaced. Fuck it, let’s marketise religion, I’ll pay top dollar for a piece of Heavenly real estate.

The lie at the heart of Browne is that consumerism guarantees quality and therefore commodifying learning and knowledge will make HE better for all. It’s an argument that is difficult to sustain. Think of supermarkets, the citadels of consumerism, for instance. Quality for such retail giants is relative, with some supermarkets catering for the cheap and cheerful end of the market, where ‘every little helps’, while others can make their pitch in terms of high quality produce. (This isn’t just an education. This is a Russell Group education.) Like supermarkets, universities will be stratified and students will internalise what every supermarket customer knows in his or her heart, you get what you pay for. Nobody buys an Asda pudding and expects M&S flavour, just as people with little money and no expectation of ever being rich will get used to the educational equivalent of Ryanair.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    October 17, 2010 6:46 pm

    Marketise religion? Now that’s an idea – perhaps we could bring that particular consumer good to market under the brand name of ‘Indulgences’?

    But no doubt some silly researcher at Which would pin some critical theses on a church door/blog site about the product. Even so, I don’t think that such a obscure argument about the effectiveness of any particular product would have any effect in the Irish market though, do you?

    Back on the real subject of this great post: can I just confess to despair? I have absolutely no idea of how to stop this happening and struggle to see forces in society that will stop it. But I have no doubt doubt it is black, black reaction….

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    October 17, 2010 7:49 pm

    What if we gazed into a crystal ball and could see 7 or 8 years ahead? What if large numbers of bright kids from housing estates just decided not to go to university. All those so-called ‘graduate jobs’ and no-one with the qualifications to fill them. So the employers stop asking for degrees and the inflation of qualifications burns out.

    What if despite all the government hype around STEM subjects, the kids vote for the relatively cheap arts and humanities courses? They’re popularly perceived as the easier, more pleasurable option, and what consumer can resist pleasure?

    Media Studies, English and History are the sort of courses that you can easily do ‘open and distance’ or part-time, taking much of the financial pain out of HE.

    Suddenly the government is concerned that the kids aren’t taking up the precious STEM subjects and intervene to offer generous grants to any student willing to spend three or four years doing whatever it is that people on STEM courses do. The arts and humanities cry foul. What happened to the free market in HE, they say.

    Meanwhile lecturers get to quite like not having to work under the oppressive audit culture of the State. Consumers can be uppity and demanding, but old fashioned customer care is much easier to deliver that endless, pointless paper trails to satisfy bureaucrats.

    Personally, Charlie, I think things are so bad in higher education at the moment I find it difficult to image how things could get worse. Now, even as I say that I realise it has ‘famous last words’ stamped all over it, but the situation feels desperate at times.

    Most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to be doing. There is no clear direction, just lots of contradictory orders. Research, research research, the REF is coming. No. Wait. About turn. Teach, teach, teach. Think of the ‘student experience’. They’re paying for this, you know, so we’ve decided to slash the teaching budget and cut our way to excellence. While we’re at it, keep an eye on your retention and progression figures, make sure nobody fails but make sure also that academic standards are maintained! I’m coping with this, so, as for the Browne review, bring it on!

  3. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    October 17, 2010 8:25 pm

    Had a chat with ‘not-quite-14-yet’ Charlie junior today. He’s showing disturbing signs of turning into a nice, laid back bloke, so I feel I’ve failed to inculcate the proper values of Teenage Rebellion in him…anyway, he’s so laid back and reasonable he was prepared to have a discussion with his parents about not merely which GCSEs he might want to do in a 2-3 yrs time but even about the idea of going to Uni. He said he wanted to do a course which gave him some time overseas, ideally in the United States. Inside myself, I winched. We can’t afford that – I mean, he’s got a pretty bright 11 yr old sister who’ll probably go to Uni as well.

    Now the young Charlie has two graduate parents – and, on his mum’s side, two graduate grandparents as well. He’s not your ‘bright kid from the estate’ in the way I was, but neither are his family loaded. As it stands he faces – though he doesn’t know it yet – a significantly worse experience of tertiary education that the two preceding generations in his own family. He’ll have to work, at least part time, through his undergrad years and he’ll leave with massive debt even though we’ll pay as much of the fees as we can. I think the idea of a cool exchange year in New York is pretty much out of the question in those circumstances.

    So talking of pleasure – if you were 18 or 19 again would you rather get into debt to go to college or get into the same amount of debt to get on that plane and hangout in New York for a year or two? ( Mind, I don’t think Mrs.Charlie and I would fund that, miserable bastards that we are…). I reckon you’re right about the potential for declining interest in Higher Education under this new scenario.

    BTW, don’t think you’re going to escape the audit culture just because the bastards are taking the money away. Oh no: there are quality standards to enforce, so this shiny new crop of empowered educational consumers can be assured they’re not buying a pig in a poke. You’re still going to have to fill in someone’s forms, and those forms aren’t going to get any shorter….

  4. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    October 17, 2010 8:46 pm

    P.S. stop complaining man. It could be worse. (via)

  5. Rabelais permalink*
    October 17, 2010 8:47 pm

    It’s funny, I’ve been interviewing prospective students this week, all of whom arrive with a parent (which you’d never have seen 5 or 6 years ago, when becoming a student also had something to do with untying yourself from the apron strings).

    The kids are charming and naive. The parents fretful and desperate for some direction or indication that all this university business is going to pay off.

    I’ll be one of those concerned parents soon enough and I don’t know how will I behave? My head quite rationally says, a degree really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, but the heart says how can I be so flippant about my kids’ education and future.

    Parents are critical at this time. How they react to Browne review is, I feel, a great deal more important that either the NUS or UCU. And I really hope that they tell Browne, the government and the university’s to go fuck themselves.

  6. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    October 17, 2010 9:14 pm

    If it helps at all Rab, on behalf of parents everywhere, I am prepared to stick my neck out and tell you, as a representative of universities everywhere, to go fuck yourself.

    But the thing is – I don’t really mean that, and I don’t think it helps. My despair remains.

  7. October 17, 2010 11:44 pm

    Great post. I worry though that we aren’t seeing an ill-thought out response to crisis, but rather an all-too-well thought-out one an academic equivalent of this

    aimed at destroying an entire sector in the class interests of the bourgeoisie; in this case, lower taxation.

    But will we instead see dialectics jump up and bite them on the ass? An economy that gives up on an educated workforce and properly-funded research in an era of increasing technological sophistication? That’ll end well for the very people who think they will make money off this.

  8. Rabelais permalink*
    October 18, 2010 8:03 am

    The proposals do pose a number of questions:

    1. Do the government believe as their predecessors did, that more education, more graduates is the road to economic prosperity?
    2. Or have they concluded, as Prof. Alison Wolf has argued, that the link between economic success and education is exaggerated and not straightforward?
    3. Will all subjects, including the prestigious and apparently economically critical STEM subjects, be left to the logic of the market?
    4. And this is a key one for me: Since Lord Browne is not qualified to review education per se, to what extent does his report represent an attempt to open new higher education up as a new financial market? There are already posters up on campus encouraging people to ‘invest’ in their future.

    If parents/prospective students aren’t just to turn their back on higher education then the government and its allies need to do a lot of ideological work to convince people that the debt incurred through HE is an ‘investment’. But there is still that nagging question at the back of my mind: if degrees and graduates really are good for the national economy, because graduates earn more, making us all commensurably richer, then why doesn’t the government make the investment? Or if mass graduation is integral to business success, will we see private industry contribute more to higher education funds?

  9. October 18, 2010 5:37 pm

    I thought they were going to continue to fund teaching in the STEM subjects, right? Good point about opening up another means of profiteering for the finance sector. The government seems to be keen to create a US culture of philantrophy when it comes to universities. I suppose there’s no better way to encourage people to give them money than to starve them of funds and threaten their existence.

  10. Charlieman permalink
    October 19, 2010 7:41 pm

    Nice to read you blogging again.

    Garibaldy amused me with the suggestion about a US culture of philanthropy. UK universities do not know a lot about their older graduates (my alma mater has zero data about me, and I expect it to stay that way), but a couple of years ago there was flurry around creating “email for life” to keep track. Bizarrely, to me at least, some graduates give their phone number to the old university.

    In theory, this provides the university marketing department with contact details for potential donors. Which is wrong because recent graduates are still paying off their loans which they logically regard as a contribution to their old university. Thus universities upset people who might be able to give generously in the future whilst raising peanuts in the short term. (I am aware of one university fund raising exercise that used a database of 7,000 targets to raise £70,000; no charity would get such dismal results.)

  11. October 19, 2010 9:03 pm


    Usually university fund-raisers have, at best, contact details for parents or the ex-students addresses immediately after leaving. So wasteful targeting has to be the norm. The new e-world doesn’t make that much difference: I have left a trail of former – and now forgotten – email addresses behind and I fully expect others have done the same. But they’ll still go on trying, as the glossy brochures from Mrs.McM’s fenland alma mater that pop through the door every quarter prove, despite the fact she’s now left the bloody place for 25 years.

    The point is that US philanthropy in Higher Education is based on a admixture of (a) a low tax economy and non existent (by European standards) welfare state; (b) showing off – e.g. The Hiram.K.Cheeseburger Chair of Very Refined Things; (c) Buying a hereditary place for Junior through ‘charitable’ college donations – though, of course, it is never put quite as blatantly as that. this r isn’t going to be reproduced in the UK or Ireland, whatever the dreamers in the libertarian think tanks may yearn for.

    Actually, I think the Fatman has interesting things to say here: the whole idea of life long learning is key. I don’t demur form Rab’s line, but I do think we need to think beyond shock at the sheer philistinism of the current govt and consider what higher education is for (yes, it’s for the slow accumulation of real knowledge, but it is also to make us all happier/more engaged/richer human beings) , and how it fits into our lives more generally.

  12. Strategist permalink
    October 19, 2010 11:50 pm

    “Now the young Charlie… faces – though he doesn’t know it yet – a significantly worse experience of tertiary education that the two preceding generations in his own family.”

    “Personally… I think things are so bad in higher education at the moment I find it difficult to image how things could get worse… Most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to be doing. There is no clear direction, just lots of contradictory orders.”

    Just thinking out loud, late at night, so don’t bite my head off if this is daft, but:
    is there a case for a group of scholars and seekers after wisdom who are pissed off with the establishment walking out of town and heading off to the fens (or the hills) to found a new college or university where they collaboratively design an experience of tertiary education which is actually better than we had? (And with a year abroad in the programme!)

    Hate to use a Goveism, but could it be called a Free University? (Isn’t this what you have been doing with a senior school, pre-dating Gove, Charlie?)

    Or if the Lord Chamberlain or the QCA or whoever the fuck they are won’t let you call it a university or let you issue a degree, then call it an institute and issue a diploma. It would make your CV stand out amongst all those boring conventional university degrees, so maybe not a bad thing anyway.

    Thinking about somewhere along the lines of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynnlleth, maybe?

    Or am I just falling for the market model? (Could it be actually done for less than the cost of a place at an existing university – is that where my idea falls down?)

  13. Strategist permalink
    October 19, 2010 11:56 pm

    …does this scam only work with Hiram K. Cheeseburger fully brown-nosed and on board for the ride?

  14. October 20, 2010 7:56 am

    Wasn’t Cambridge founded in the way you envisage – a group of pissed off monks from Oxford taking a hike and starting again? ( Cue long explanation on why I’m wrong on this from the interweb’s Oxbridge denizens…) Dunno how they funded it back then though – probably from taking the surplus off of some serfs on manors owned by the monks.

    & there is the rub. No school and no University can be free. Someone has to fund it. The issue is always under what conditions the money is made available and the degree to any institution can/should have powers to raise its own income. The school I’m involved is most definitely not a free school: it is a school where there is a different and more participative kind of arrangement between parents, staff and the local authority which funds it. A Free school is funded directly by central- not local – government and all the parents get to do is choose their private provider…..

    If Rab and his workmates are going to break away completely from state funding then either they need to find a lot of Hiram K Cheesburgers, or charge huge fees or starting keeping an eye out for medieval manors with a full complement of villeins going cheap during the recession…

  15. Rabelais permalink*
    October 20, 2010 10:19 am

    There has been rumblings for a while about the establishment of a Free University for a while. The plan seemed to be to deliver something open, distance and online. And as I understand it, the idea was that lecturers would work volutarily and courses would be substantially free.

    I don’t know how far the idea has got or whether it’s still out there, but there are a few questions and problems that strike me immediately. What would value would a degree have from such an institution? How would competing institutions react to free competition and how would they feel about their staff being involved in such a project? (I’m sure I already know the answer to this.) And how would a free university cover administrative costs etc?

    In principle I like the idea because I think the commodification of learning and knowledge should be resisted, and even if the free university doesn’t have legs, I suspect that clandestine and pirate educators will emerge in the future.

  16. Strategist permalink
    October 20, 2010 11:02 pm

    Cheers guys.
    Charlie, I was alluding to the foundation of Cambridge, but Wikipedia says my allusion was wrong. Cambridge *was* founded by scholars from Oxford, but they were hounded out of Oxford by hostile townsmen, rather than walking out on a university establishment that wasn’t giving them what they needed.

    “Dunno how they funded it back then though – probably from taking the surplus off of some serfs on manors owned by the monks.”

    They most certainly did! Are you watching the excellent Michael Wood series about Kibworth, Leics? It’s Averageville, Middle England, but it just happens to have a perfect set of medieval records, because the manor was owned by Merton College, Oxford for years and years? Highly recommended – a brilliant social history. Anyway, it emerged on this evening’s episode that the nonconformists of the village set up an independent “Kibworth Academy” in the 18th century because Oxford wouldn’t let them in, and it offered a pretty top class education, including for women. “Knowledge is power”, as Wood said at least twice in his commentary – he must have been reading this blog.

    So that’s the kind of thing I was thinking of, and I do think the CAT at Machynnlleth is a modern version of the same thing. Yes, it probably doesn’t fly without a benefactor, but CAT’s has been pretty benign.

    Anyway enough on my idle idea for now – but keep me posted if you hear from any clandestine or pirate educators, or any other band of merry men out in the greenwood… and I’ll pinch your pic to clip to my application to join up, Rab!

  17. October 21, 2010 9:19 am

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    Course fees: £1000 per hour
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    Details of our full range of taxes and hidden charges, flight offers, share options and course prospectus are available online for an unbeatable subscription offer of £10 per month using the promotional code WE LOVE MICHAEL.

    The Ryan Air University! Prepare for take off!

    (* taking a course at Ryan Air University does not affect your statutory consumer rights. Just like our planes, the value of our degrees may go down as well as up.)

  18. Rabelais permalink*
    October 21, 2010 12:10 pm

    Academic Anon and Rab, the world’s first academic ‘trolley-dollies’!

  19. Strategist permalink
    October 22, 2010 12:56 am

    NB At Ryanair University the staff are not excused the toilet rental fee

  20. October 27, 2010 8:01 am

    Catching up on blogs after too much (academic and political) work – great post and debate. Another aspect is, universities have to be clear about what we are ‘selling’, both now and in the future, even in the Ryanair uni (love it). We are selling access to tuition and facilities. We are not selling a guaranteed First or 2.1. If we ‘re increasingly in a market, and pandering to worried parents rather than genuinely educating their children, then the message has to go out that you can pay all this money for your offspring to come to uni and they may still end up with a bog standard degree, or even fail. I don’t trust the higher echelons of univeristy administration to be clear enough about this message, partly because they are not doing the teaching and so don’t see the results first hand, but also because they are flogging their produce and so want to put the best gloss on it. So I’ll keep on saying to all my students (and their parents), especially when appeals loom.

  21. October 27, 2010 8:43 am

    “We are not selling a guaranteed First or 2.1”

    To which I can only reply – well Yeah, But No, But Yeah.

    I speak as a relative and friend of quite a few academics. I have no idea whether their experience – or their rendition of their experience anyway – is typical, but….it is always noticeable how, when they get together, the conversation turns in exam season to question of marking consistency and, in admissions season, to the subtle pressure they often feel to admit marginal students, especially if they happen to be foreign ( because they pay higher fees….)

    These two things are felt to be related: as it was put to me last night round the dinner table, if you know that some pleasant, hard working but just a bit dim young person from, say, Bangladesh has had most of his entire extended family’s life savings invested in his British education are you really going to fail him if you can possibly find a reason not to?

    Especially if you know its been made abundantly clear to you in words of one syllable that tuition fees are what pays your salary and your institution really doesn’t want to lose a particular ‘market segment’ by appearing to disproportionately fail its offspring…

  22. Rabelais permalink*
    October 27, 2010 9:24 am

    Typically, I do both. I make very clear that paying of the facilities and tuition doesn’t guarantee a good award, if at all. And then I’ll make sure they leave with something.

    I refer you to my post on the good and bad self:

    This is a genuine problem though. And actually, because of the introduction of consumerist logic in HE I find that I have been more inclined to be tougher in assessment and admissions. Whether I can sustain this in the new climate remains to be seen.

  23. October 27, 2010 8:52 pm

    Well good luck!!

  24. October 27, 2010 11:01 pm

    There’s not a chance really, is there?

  25. October 28, 2010 8:07 am


  26. October 30, 2010 11:10 am

    I see Stefan Collini agrees with you. Magisterially, and at some length ( but with less entertaining swear words)

    “Browne appears to believe that the only relevant measure of teaching quality is ‘student satisfaction’. That is how the system will work: if they are satisfied, they’ll pay, and if not, not; and the pressure they exert thereby will ‘drive up quality’. But this, other problems aside, comes perilously close to reducing important human experiences to a set of ‘preferences’ as reported on a tick-box questionnaire. I would hope the students I teach come away with certain kinds of dissatisfaction (including with themselves: a ‘satisfied’ student is nigh-on ineducable), and it matters more that they carry on wondering about the source of that dissatisfaction than whether they ‘liked’ the course or not.”

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