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Let’s pretend for a moment that university fees are as progressive as the government says

December 4, 2010

Revolting young people

Following on from my previous post, here’s a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend that economic inequality plays a limited role in university recruitment. Let’s pretend that working class kids and their families are not deterred by university fees of between £6000 and £9000 a year, and let’s suppose also that the incursion of debt of around £45,000 before your 21st birthday is neither a financial disincentive nor a psychological barrier to progressing into higher education.

Also, let’s assume that working class kids are blissfully unaware of the relatively high drop-out rates among low-income recruits; that their projected grades will in all likelihood be lower than middle class peers and that they will struggle to secure positions in the top paying professions. Or let’s say that they are aware of these disadvantages but are undeterred anyway.

In other words, let’s suppose that charging a fee for higher education deters no-one; has no prohibitive impact upon enrolment; that government policy is as progressive as it says it is and that the benefits of HE are the same for everyone. It would still be a disgrace, because it proposes withholding our accrued and collective knowledge from the young (and adult learners) unless they pay for it. It is quite simply the commodification of knowledge and skills fundamental to human existence.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. wartimehousewife permalink
    December 4, 2010 6:43 pm

    This may be horribly simplistic and uninformed, but perhaps if they were to drop the degrees in pointless subjects where apprenticeships or simply joining companies at the bottom and working up would be a better option, or handing the more vocational/practical degrees back to Polytechnics, there would be more resources sloshing around to provide education for the sake of it. Of which I am wholly in favour, incidentally.

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    December 4, 2010 7:36 pm

    I think you make a fair point Wartime. It would be good if there were a range of tertiary options that catered for a range of aptitudes, interest and ambitions. It just seems to me that a society that decides to charge people for what are social necessary skills and knowledge is a society in that has completely lost the plot.

  3. December 5, 2010 10:46 am

    A brief McMenamin family history:

    1931: Grandpa McMenamin leaves school at thirteen, gets job as delivery boy;

    1936: Grandma McMenamin leaves school at 14, goes into domestic service;

    1973: young Charlie McM looks up one year to an incredible disgruntled 5th form who all have to stay on at school till 16 for the first time and decides that discretion is the better part of valour in the playground so stays out of range of their bad temper;

    2010 : grandson McM, now 14, gets to grip with the fact everyone at school with him will have to stay till at least 17. The govt makes noises about upping it to 18.

    What’s the point of this story? There are fewer and fewer entry level jobs around, at whatever age is deemed acceptable for entry into the jobs market. So, as time goes by, we as a society say people should stay longer in full time education to better prepare them for such jobs as we imagine there might be available in a decade or two’s time. Which is fine and dandy in its way – as long as this ‘preparation’* isn’t based on a huge levy on the young people subject to it and does consist entirely of either narrow minded vocational training or the complete loss of an idea of education as a human good in and of itself.

    I’m with Rab on this.

  4. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    December 5, 2010 11:05 am

    Of course that should say
    “…as long as this ‘preparation’* isn’t based on a huge levy on the young people subject to it and doesn’t consist entirely of either narrow minded vocational training or the complete loss of an idea of education as a human good in and of itself. ”

    And the asterisk referred to a mysteriously disappeared footnote which said:

    *It’s always a guess though, isn’t it? Who know what jobs will actually be available in 20 years time ? Certainly not my metalwork or technical drawing teachers in the early 1970s who dined on out the economic indispensability of the skills they were paid to impart. I suspect this will also be true of much of the most vocational parts of today’s curriculum. So let’s teach people knowledge and thinking skills and help them develop creativity with which to address whatever problems they end up being faced with.

  5. December 5, 2010 6:34 pm

    • relatively high drop-out rates among low-income recruits
    • their projected grades will in all likelihood be lower than middle class peers
    • they will struggle to secure positions in the top paying professions

    Why on earth go to university then? At any price?

    I have to nail my colours to the mast for cheaper but more exclusive university education. Very bright young people, of whatever class, go to university (relatively inexpensively) – most others don’t. But do something else that will be useful to them (CF: Wartime Housewife).

    They could also try the OU – as I’m doing at the moment. Good education – shame about the lack of drinking and shagging opportunities*

    (* For them – not for me.)

  6. Rabelais permalink*
    December 5, 2010 7:48 pm

    ‘Why on earth go to university then? At any price?’

    Well, exactly, Freelance. And, of course, most working class kids don’t go to university. I agree that we need a range of tertiary options for various needs, ambitions and aptitudes. But my key concern is that simply trying to funnel every kid into higher education, or saying that you’re committed to broadening participation will neither attract students form low-income families or bring about social mobility (a concept I’m suspicious of anyway). The evidence suggests that the way to do that is to redistribute wealth, strive for a more equal society, then you have the basis from which to pursue more progressive educational policies.

    Also, I’m trying to think through the implications of a society that has decided to sell the accumulated knowledge and skills which are fundamental to its existence. At other stages of history, what would have been the consequences of withholding expertise, experience from the young and sharing it on the basis of their willingness or ability to pay for it? How we conceive of education – that passing of the torch from generation to the next, if you like – doesn’t that strike at the very heart of what it means to be human, in some sense?

    PS. OU is fantastic. I was a tutor for a while. Fantastic, mature, dedicated students. But you’re right, absolutely no sex with open and distance learning. Although, now I come to think of it, I hear you can have virtual sex, which I’m sure has an open and distance version…

  7. December 5, 2010 11:28 pm

    One point I think is often missed in all this discussion of the need for fewer people to go to university etc is that there are very, very few jobs available compared to the past, when there were apprenticeships, factories etc. Take Harland and Wolff and Shorts as two local examples that could easily be replicated across huge swathes of the UK with the devastation of manufacturing, mining, steel etc in the interests of finance capital and the Tories. If fewer people go to university, what are they going to do instead? Will the government be investing in public enterprises or job creation schemes. I think we all know the answer to that.

    And loving the snow by the way Rab.

  8. Rabelais permalink*
    December 6, 2010 10:08 am

    Hi Garibaldy,
    In a way the issues being raised here strike me as exactly the sorts of questions that need to be asked in any debate about education. Should a university education be for everyone? What educational options and alternatives should be available? What jobs will be available subsequently? What will be the nature of that work? Can we predict the sorts of knowledge and skills that will be required? If we can’t answer these questions then expecting people to ‘invest’ in their education is tantamount to saying selling someone a car they may not be able to drive, and then sending them out onto icy roads without so much as a map.

    If we can’t predict what the jobs’ market is going to be like when people graduate; if we don’t know what sorts of skillets (in the jargon) they will require, then for God sake, let’s drop all the bollocks about ‘investing in your own future’ and just educate people the best we can to the best of their abilities. That would require a range of educational options, flexible learning structures, and a commitment to adult education and retraining that is free at the point of delivery.

  9. December 6, 2010 4:31 pm


    Spot on. If you are going to commercialise education, then you need to be able to point to identifiable outcomes and advantages. A very good point about the retraining free at the point of delivery. And not as a desperate move to get you off the long-term unemployed list after six months as a jobseeker. Or whatever they will call the dole next.

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