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Who cares whether the poor go to university or not?

February 13, 2011

It looks increasingly likely that most universities will set their fees at the top rate of £9000. As Mike Baker explains here, this is because universities will have to charge at least £7500 just to maintain current levels of income once the teaching grant gets slashed, but most will opt to add another £1500 to that figure because none will want to appear cut price and second rate when compared to other institutions.

This is bad news for the government. It is literally banking on price ‘differentiation’, since its projected figures on the cost of funding student loans rest upon the assumption that the average fees will be somewhere between £8000 and £8500. But Mike Baker suggests that students themselves would prefer to be at a university that charges the full whack because, well, who wants a degree from higher education’s equivalent of Poundland? And who wants to be at an institution that charges less and therefore spends less on your education?

Baker argues that this is were the whole fees affair gets interesting because if most universities charge £9000 then this will leave the government out of pocket since the cost of funding student loans will exceed the anticipate £3.6bn  As a consequence it’s threatening to ‘claw back’ money from institutions that charge the full 9k by reducing further their teaching grant.

All of which begs the question: if you’re a forward thinking, entrepreneurial university, why don’t you just tell the government to take its teaching grant and stick it up its arse? You could go private; charge what you like and free yourself from the dead-hand of government bureaucracy and its stultifying audit culture. The very thought of new lean, mean, private universities probably sets some Tory pulses racing. Dear God, it even makes this looney lefty’s heart flutter a little, such is my contempt for the endless, worthless administration that I associate with government regulation.

But back to the substance of this post. What does all this mean for students from low income families? Well, apparently universities charging more than £6000 may be fined or forced to reduce their fees if they fail to reach their quota of poor people! But who really gives a fuck about the poor (they are after all, always with us)?

We live in a class ridden society and education plays a crucial role in reproducing social stratification, with people striving to acquire qualifications, which they hope will give them competitive advantage over others in the job market. Someone has got to be poor, so just be glad it isn’t you… or perhaps it is you, in which case you may find some consolation in the notion that your relative poverty is a sort of public service that allows others to get on.

Graduation Day at Gradgrind College

All the government cant about ensuring places in higher education for people from low income families is becoming tiresome. It serves a similar function to charity in the minds of the affluent. It salves the conscious while licensing ‘business as usual’.

I suppose that what I’m suggesting is this: the government’s insistence on universities providing opportunities for  young people from low income families is all a bit cosmetic. Why would Tories care whether the poor go to university or not? In pure economic terms (the only terms the Tories seem to understand), what would be the advantage of putting low income students through higher education? In fact, given the potential costs of funding student loans in the future, the government may feel that there is a better economic case for keeping the poor out of universities.

The more pointed question is why does the Left want to encourage working class and low income families to consider university as a viable option? Social mobility? Economic prosperity? Do me a favour! Social mobility is encouraged by the redistribution of wealth not education. And there is little evidence that putting more people through HE makes us all richer.

The Right, deep down in its fetid subconscious, may not give a flying fuck about the poor and whether they get a higher education or not. But the Left has got to come up with a convincing argument about why education matters and what education is for, that doesn’t rely on stupid platitudes about social mobility and prosperity.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. wartimehousewife permalink
    February 13, 2011 6:07 pm

    But surely the poor are not the problem. If you are really poor, don’t you get grants? Is it not the middle income people who get hit hardest? The ones who work incredibly hard but earn just that little bit too much to qualify for assistance. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  2. Rab permalink*
    February 13, 2011 7:07 pm

    Hi Wartime,
    This from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills website:
    ‘Students from families with incomes of up to £25,000 will be entitled to non-repayable maintenance grant of up to £3,250 and those from families with incomes up to £42,000 will be entitled to a partial grant.’

    There’s more stuff here:

    At the moment I’m struggling with the whole question of working class and low income entry into higher education. From what I can see it is the (lower) middle class who benefited most from the extension of higher education. Young people from poorer backgrounds, in general, seem to be stubbornly disinterested in university.

    So at the moment my own thinking on this is a little bit heretical on the Left. I would love to see more working class kids in HE. But that raises the question, what’s in it for them. I’ve been mulling this over on this blog for a while now and as far as I can see it’s not at all clear that the ‘obvious’ economic benefits of a university education materialise for students from working class or poor backgrounds, for a range of reasons. And I’m increasingly fed up with the assumption that education is primarily about achieving competitive advantage in the job market and serving national economic imperatives in any case. So, I’m not sure how to advance a class based argument for free higher education. Instead, I just fundamental object to accumulated human knowledge being treated as a commodity. This is what I was kind of trying to say here:

    • wartimehousewife permalink
      February 13, 2011 9:22 pm

      Thanks Rab. I might add that it’s false to assume that lower middle class kids from state schools should be shoe-horned into university. Many of them simply aren’t up to it because one factor is that state education is so patchy; some schools are brilliant and some are not. If you really want poor kids to have access to social mobility, education needs to improve right from primary level. They also have to be imbued with a different set of expectations – university is not useful for everyone. And you’re right, as long as education is seen as purely a vehicle for getting a job, then the whole thing is fucked anyway. Education at all levels should be geared towards teaching children to think for themselves through the basic administration of facts and skills, as this is the only way they will learn the flexibility needed to survive in a constantly shifting adult world. For many young people, they need to be out there doing stuff in order to learn what they need to learn.

      Also I completely object to state school children being given access to university places on the basis of lower grades. That is revolting and inappropriate discrimination at a time when the bar should be being raised rather than lowered.

  3. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 14, 2011 3:14 pm

    On the narrow point of admissions criteria, you might wish to take account of the fact that comp kids tend to do better at uni than those will similar (or indeed slightly better) grades who come from Grammar or fee paying schools.

  4. Rab permalink*
    February 14, 2011 4:58 pm

    Stupidity is not the preserve of any one class. And as the Sutton Trust’s research suggests, Grammar school is no guarentee of success at degree level. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to advance the idea that the only criteria for entry to university should be interest and aptitude. But doesn’t that mean that it is incumbent upon government to make sure that everyone gets a fair crack at going to university? And isn’t the way to do that to focus much more attention on pre-school and primary level (and probably secondary)? And not to have any financial disincentives. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer see education as a panacea with regards fixing all social ills and inequalities. But higher education tends to confirm and rubber stamp the inequalities set in motion much earlier on.

    And here’s a little anecdotal observation, which perhaps illustrates just how problematic university admission processes can be. I know many students who arrive at university with excellent A Level results, who look very promising prospects but don’t make the transition to higher education and so leave with dissappointing degree awards. I’ve seen just as many students turn up with poor qualifications on entry who for some reason do extra-ordinarily well on their course. As a consequence I tend never to err on the side of caution when it comes to admissions. This was easier when education was free. Then you could say, let ’em in. What does any one have to lose. These days a fucking whole lot of money.

  5. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 15, 2011 8:46 am

    You want narrative?

    No one knows anything about the future. Most of what we think we know is just projecting stuff which ain’t going to happen ( hence <a href= . But I’d take a stab at two likelihoods:

    A. The baby boomer generation, that population bulge in the statistics, is going to fade away and retire in the next twenty years. So there is going to be more ‘space’, earlier, at the middle & upper reaches of the occupational pyramid than there has been for the last 15-25 yrs. Younger people will need to fill these gaps.

    B. There is going to be less and less need , proportionally speaking at least, for people who can only do unskilled or semi-skilled work.

    So we need more ‘educated’ people. Or at least more flexible and creative ones. We just don’t know what to educate them in. One doesn’t have to completely agree with the rather oversold Ken Robinson to understand that, yup, he’s onto something. And so?

    Who knows what’s useful to study, let’s just get some smarts inside us.Or that’s my conclusion at least. But this is like needing to convert the country from Coal Gas to North Sea Gas in the early 1970s. It has to happen, for all sorts of reasons, but there is no obvious reason why the consumer should pay directly.

    The basic problem with fees is that they’re not a progressive income tax. In reality, many if not all, of those who will now be liable for fees would, under a different system of more progressive taxation (say the one we had in the 1970s), repay the costs of their education anyway as they would earn more as they got older. But some wouldn’t; sometimes through choice (joining a convent for instance); sometimes through bad luck (breakdown etc); and sometimes through sheer failure to progress in their career.

    It is my belief, as a child of unskilled manual workers who went to university in the 1970s, that those in the same position today would be much more likely to go take the option of less risk. & that means a tax, not a system of personal debt

  6. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 15, 2011 5:18 pm

    A musical comment on this matter. ( Video takes quite a while to load, but worth it)

    Also, can you delete my comment at Feb 14 10.27pm please Rab? I see you now have the correct(ish) version

    • Rab permalink*
      February 16, 2011 9:17 am

      Kinda sound like US version of The Clash. But then again, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I’m deaf these days to anything that doesn’t sound like The Clash… or the Gang or Four or The Pop Group. Must be my age.

  7. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 16, 2011 12:06 pm

    Not American: they’re Brixton types. The product of a meeting between the son of a Glaswegian trade unionist and the offspring of a Welsh baptist preacher at some early rave party. Possibly the best, ahem, “punk rock, blues and country techno situationist crypto-Marxist-Leninist electro band” in the world and best known for doing the Sopranos theme tune.

    The leftism seems genuine enough, though.

  8. February 16, 2011 10:02 pm

    I think myself the Tories are hoping to kill off a few of the post-92 universities, and reduce access to education. Part of course of the big society. If you want to know how it looks, read the Condition of the Working Class in England or Charles Dickens.

    As for the Alabama 3, they are strong supporters of the campaign to stop the extradition of Seán Garland to the US. They played a concert in Meath for him recently. It was fucking great. Listening to the Sopranos theme music live was just brilliant. Photos of the event are available on the Seán Garland campaign website

    • wartimehousewife permalink
      February 16, 2011 10:17 pm

      A friend of mine trsvelled 200 miles from Tarbert in Argyll to Glasgow to see the Alabama Three. He said they were rubbish! Although I’m sure they’re morally sound….

      • February 16, 2011 11:06 pm

        I found them thoroughly entertaining, and concerts aren’t really my thing. They were fun.

  9. Dr Disco permalink
    February 18, 2011 12:35 pm

    Holy crap, have Alabama 3 reformed? AGAIN? It’s like they reappear every 5 years, re-release “woke up this morning” (even though it’s not even close to one of their best tracks) and then disappear up their own arses again.

  10. Andrew permalink
    March 2, 2011 3:44 pm

    For the most part I find the comments about the poor not going to university unfair.
    I agree that many may not be interested, and in some situations bad schools have a large part to play.
    But my Mother only earns on average 15, 000 a year, but I’m interested in going to university, I plan to go, I had a terrible teaching past from my last schools, but I’m set to get some of the highest grades in my class at A-levels, but if these prices go up, I can’t afford to go to uni.

    That isn’t my fault that I can’t afford it, and I’m excited as anyone to go. But my plans get thrown on the fire now, if I can’t get the money.

    And for some reason, I’m not eligible to recieve the full loans either.

    So in essence I find it unfair that I can’t go, because I’m poor, but it seems to me you think that I have no right to go because of that fact.

  11. Rab permalink*
    March 2, 2011 7:32 pm

    Sorry Andrew. I think you have misunderstood my position on this. Anybody with the aptitude and interest should go to university and for this reason I am utterly opposed to fees.

    I also find the idea of commodifying knowledge morally repugnant, as well as discouraging working class students. But fees are not the only thing that discriminates against working class students with regards higher education. I’ve written about this here. And here.

    In fact, I go on about this stuff ad nauseum on this blog.

    The point I’m making in the post above is that I’ve grown sick and tired of listening to successive governments spouting about how concerned they are about the fate of students from low-income families while simultaneously doing fuck all about it, and in many instance implementing policies that make their situation worse.

    Hope this clarifies my position, Andrew. It’s a pleasure to hear from you and good luck with university. Drop by again.



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