For Tories, the poor don’t need ed­u­ca­tion

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Zoe Wil­liams

Uni­ver­si­ties, the Con­ser­va­tive MP Robert Hal­fon has warned, are “ob­sessed with aca­demic de­grees”; these de­grees do not pre­pare stu­dents for the work­place, where no­body cares how much TS Eliot you can quote. Con­se­quently, they rep­re­sent poor value for money, in a mar­ket­place where stu­dents have been sold their debt on the ba­sis of its fu­ture wage re­turns. As haz­ards go, it’s some­where in the re­gion of “warn­ing: sci­en­tists ob­sessed with mea­sur­ing stuff ”. Yet such is the Tory world­view that per­fectly le­git­i­mate hu­man en­deav­our – ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion for its own sake – has in­deed be­come quite per­ilous as a lived ex­pe­ri­ence.

The idea that a de­gree should re­sult in a de­fin­able re­turn was a nec­es­sary – in­deed, the most nec­es­sary – el­e­ment of the in­tro­duc­tion of £9,000-a-year fees. Un­less stu­dents could be per­suaded that their de­grees would net them well in ex­cess of £27k when it came to earn­ings, the of­fer would have been much sim­pler: you can’t have what gen­er­a­tions be­fore you had, be­cause … tough.

Un­for­tu­nately, it was never true: the fig­ures given by uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter Jo John­son last year were that a grad­u­ate wo­man would earn £250,000 more over her life­time than her non-grad­u­ate coun­ter­part, a grad­u­ate man £170,000 more. The orig­i­nal modelling for the stu­dent loan book was based on an av­er­age £150,000 gap over a life­time and didn’t take into ac­count the fact that some would earn much more than that, yet still re­pay only their loan, while oth­ers would earn much less and never be in a po­si­tion to re­pay. The re­al­ity is that many stu­dents are tak­ing de­grees in which they will never se­cure work, high paid or oth­er­wise.

A Leeds coun­cil­lor once told me there were more pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dents in his city than there were pho­tog­ra­phy jobs in the whole of Europe. The Royal So­ci­ety pub­lished a re­port in 2010 that men­tioned, al­most in pass­ing, that the pro­por­tion of Stem (sci­ence and maths) post­grad­u­ates who would end up with pro­fes­sor­ships was 0.45%. I men­tion sci­ence and pho­tog­ra­phy sim­ply be­cause they are con­sid­ered vo­ca­tional: it is so em­bed­ded in the hu­man­i­ties ex­pe­ri­ence that you’d never get a job in it (whether Egyp­tol­ogy or English) that no­body would even bother to com­mis­sion re­search.

Be­fore the Dear­ing re­port in 1997, no­body tried to mon­e­tise learn­ing on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis; higher ed­u­ca­tion was ac­cepted as a pub­lic good. Post-Dear­ing, the goal was for ev­ery­one to get a de­gree, and a cru­cial el­e­ment of that was for the state to stop bear­ing the cost, since that was “de­signed in the 1950s for an elite sys­tem”. Only the elite are worth spend­ing money on, in other words: once ev­ery­one else came rush­ing in, the mar­ket should pro­vide.

Like any ar­gu­ment that has its arse on back­wards, these as­sump­tions failed: there was never any guar­an­tee that a de­gree would pro­ceed, un­in­ter­rupted, to a rel­e­vant and suit­ably re­mu­ner­ated job. Sub­se­quent pres­sures – prin­ci­pally, stag­nant wages and the growth of un­paid work at pro­fes­sional en­try level, have ren­dered ridicu­lous the no­tion that grad­u­ates would be re­warded for the fi­nan­cial risks they were tak­ing.

The tragedy is, those who recog­nise this are pu­n­ished: I in­ter­viewed an ex-stu­dent just be­fore the 2015 elec­tion. He’d dropped out of a busi­ness stud­ies de­gree be­cause he couldn’t see any way to jus­tify spend­ing £9,000 on in­for­ma­tion he could quite eas­ily peel off the in­ter­net. This left him with the debt of that first year, no de­gree, and the un­en­vi­able sta­tus of Neet. Stu­dent debt is like the cli­max of Toy Story 3: a con­veyor belt from which you can’t alight, even if you can see a roar­ing fur­nace of im­pe­cu­nity at the end of it.

There is noth­ing less sur­pris­ing than the surge of anx­i­ety in univer­sity life, so pro­nounced that some cam­puses even have pet­ting zoos for exam time, emo­tional sup­port dogs (and horses. And rab­bits!) to fill the gap be­tween what stu­dents are re­quired to be­lieve and what they know to be true.

Hal­fon is en­tirely cor­rect: for a party that un­der­stands noth­ing but the mar­ket, the value of learn­ing will al­ways be a puz­zle un­less you can count it in pounds (though not for their own chil­dren, of course, for whom they can al­ways see the po­etry of learn­ing Clas­sics for its own sake). The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem is a pol­i­tics of su­pe­ri­or­ity, in which the poor aren’t worth ed­u­cat­ing, be­cause if they had fine minds they wouldn’t be poor. Uni­ver­si­ties, with their aca­demic ob­ses­sions, their eru­dite, philo­soph­i­cal bent, should con­cen­trate on over­turn­ing that.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.