I was one of the lucky ones. When I went to university there were no tuition fees and, depending on parental income, there was a maintenance grant. My parents were not high earners but I still only got two-thirds of the grant, not an enormous amount but, combined with working during every university vacation, it was enough to get through four years doing a degree and PGCE without any student debt. When I went to university perhaps 5 per cent of my age cohort followed suit; today it’s heading for 50 per cent. I was the first in my family to go to university and came from what I suppose was a non-manual working-class background. Was I at a financial disadvantage at university? Of course I was…on my landing were two scions of local business families who could easily have afforded to pay the running costs of the hall of residence without drawing breath. They had cars…very noisy sports cars I remember…could afford all those expensive things that an eighteen year old craved at the time. Wealth, of course, did not buy intelligence and they were not the brightest individuals…mannered rather than cultured, on occasions annoyingly patronising (though they would not have recognised it as such) but also considerate and grateful when given assistance with their work. It was a learning experience for all of us: me from grammar school, them from minor public schools. But then, that’s what university was about in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a degree was your passport into the professions and a reasonable, though rarely excessive, income.
It was taken for granted that, although maintenance costs were the individuals’ responsibility, tuition fees should be paid through national taxation. Everyone, at least in theory, had the opportunity of going to university—though in practice the numbers remained stubbornly low—and so financing this was the responsibility of society as a whole which would benefit from the expenditure. Doing a university course, irrespective what the subject, was a ‘good thing’ that would contribute to the ‘commonweal’ of society. Universities were already beginning to recognise the untapped human resources in areas where university admission was never considered an option and started a process of evangelising and popularisation that still continues. By the 1990s, this ‘benefit to society’ view was increasingly questioned as the costs of higher education burgeoned and universities increasingly looked to the free-market approach to university funding evident in the United States and elsewhere. Should the state be funding the costs of higher education or the individual who benefits, in terms of greater earning-potential, from having a degree? The free-market won the argument with the introduction of tuition fees in 1998.
Today it is almost taken as read that students should pay tuition fees either during or after their courses and is rarely challenged lest you raise the ire of Vince as an ‘economic illiterate’. The argument is not about whether but how much…£3,000, £6,000, £9,000! In which case, vote for me and you’ll pay £6,000 and for them £9,000 but never we’ll abolish them. A 1p rise in income tax raises £3 billion so, assuming that universities need £10 billion to operate that’s just over 3p to make university education free. If, and all political parties go on about the need for an educated workforce, a university education is essential to society’s well-being, then there is a case for society funding at least the cost of the courses. This does not eliminate student debt—cost of living during the courses remains—but it does remove the debt to the state that is increasingly being written off anyway. Individual students will have to negotiate their own overdrafts with their banks to fund term-time expenditure while holiday jobs can then pay it off. This leave living costs, which you would have to have paid anyway, the responsibility of the individual.
The reality is that the free-market in university education has not really worked. The question, ‘what is university for?’ is today answered not as a place for the development of learning, but in accounting terms. Value is defined not in terms of value to the individual or to the broader common good but almost entirely in terms of its contribution to the development and continuance of the free-market enterprise economy. Yet there is no reason why what is of value about university education should not be both individually and socially enhancing. In the increasingly competitive jungle of higher education, academics are only as good as their last piece of research—and that research must accord with political priorities—not the service provided for the paying undergraduates frequently taught in large groups and often by post-graduates dependent on the patronage of their supervisors. Whether they get value for money is debatable though there is probably little difference between contact times for Chemistry and History today than there was in the 1970s. Chemistry courses cost more than History courses, so why should history students pay the same as Chemistry students? The answer is that money from cheaper courses is used to supplement more expensive ones. This reinforces the argument that the free-market is an illusion, a valuable construct to defend fees but without recognition by universities of the financial implications that it implies.