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?
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.