Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Higher education in Britain must be defended from the barbarians

University tuition fees are set to rise to up to £9,000 in the UK, while government spending on higher education will be cut by 40%. This will leave the UK with one of the world’s most expensive systems of public education for the student. It represents an attack on education, civilisation and meritocracy in the name of barbarism and philistinism. While they’re at it, they may as well just tip the contents of the Bodleian and Cambridge University Libraries onto big bonfires, which could reduce heating bills, then bulldoze the buildings to make way for shopping malls. That would no doubt save some money, and reduce the burden for the Big-Brother-watching taxpayer.

As a child studying at Holland Park Comprehensive School in London in the 1980s, I naively believed that hard work and talent should be rewarded, and that a university education would be my reward for studying hard. I was one of those who actually worked at school and did my homework. And it wasn’t always easy, with classes constantly being disrupted by loudmouthed morons who despised education, viewed school as oppression and teachers as the enemy. They dossed around for five years and left school with minimal or no qualifications, after having made the learning experience as difficult as possible for the rest of us. So difficult was it to work in such an environment, that I found I could study more in one hour of poorly attended optional after-school maths class – where there was no noise and disruption – than in three hours of regular classes.

Welcome to England: the European nation that most despises schools, universities, teachers and students, and that most celebrates stupidity and vulgarity. As encapsulated in the moron’s refrain to the student  - ‘I’d rather have a degree from the university of life’. The subtext being that education corrupts and divorces students from the real world, and that there is a greater nobility in ignorance, prejudice and underachievement. The binge-drinking yobs and football hooligans are the ones with the real integrity, not the poncey students with their poncey books.

How, you may ask, did a nation that thinks like this produce some of the world’s greatest institutions of learning, including the world famous Cambridge and Oxford, but also excellent universities and colleges like Imperial College, York, the London School of Economics, Warwick and others ? In fact, it’s a question of two sides of the same coin. There was a traditional belief that university education should be the preserve of the privileged few, while the masses should have no access to it. Unjust as it was, this system did at least have the merit of producing treasures like Cambridge and Oxford. A more enlightened ruling class would have sought to preserve this treasure and maximise the chances of students from all social backgrounds of benefiting from it.

Instead, for the last twenty years or so, our politicians – both Labour and Conservative – seem to have been following an inverted form of Flaubert’s dictum, and to believe that the point of democracy is to lower the ruling class to the level of stupidity attained by the masses. So left-wingers despise good universities as ‘elitist’, and would like to drag down our good universities to the level of third-rate polytechnics. And right-wingers see the whole purpose of politics as reducing taxes for well-off people, so that all government money spent on anything – never mind something as pointless as education – is a waste. Far be it from such people to value education as an end in itself; at best, left-wingers view it as yet another front for their experiments at social engineering to benefit some variously defined ‘poor’, while right-wingers want it simply to churn out suitably-qualified drudges for the workforce.

Thinking of this kind led to the simultaneous expansion and dumbing down of higher education over the past two decades, and to the proliferation of Mickey Mouse courses and institutions, where third-rate students could take courses on East Enders Studies or Football Studies or whatever. Inevitably, this prioritising of quantity over quality has discredited higher education, and reinforced the popular stereotype of lazy students studying pointless courses, as immortalised by the Viz character Student Grant. That many students do conform to the stereotype does not mean that all of them do. Yet the trend on the part of governments has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Which brings me back to my own school experiences. Silly little nerdy me – I should have realised that it was we well-behaved, hard-working pupils who were the bad guys. Why should morons who have had the decency to treat their school years as one long holiday and orgy of teacher-harassment, truanting and smoking-outside-the-gate, have to contribute with their taxes to the university education of those who actually bothered to study ? What kind of message does that send out to our young people ?!

As one commenter put it: ‘In an ideal world all education would be free, but in a world of scrimp and pinch can you make families whose children will never graduate pay in taxes for the ones born to be life’s winners?’ This may sound like the argument of a Thatcherite ideologue, but was in fact made by Ms Progressive Politics herself, the Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee. It would not occur to her to ask why people without children should contribute in their taxes toward schools, or why people who are not disabled should contribute to the cost of disabled facilities, or why Islamic fundamentalists should contribute to the cost of fighting al-Qaeda terrorism; normally, one takes it as a given that you don’t just pay taxes for public services that you personally use, but are expected to contribute to the common pot for the general good. But for some reason, it is only where higher education is concerned that this disingenuous sophistry is employed. As if anyone seriously believes that higher education cuts are motivated by the desire to redistribute in favour of the poor, as opposed to reducing taxes for the rich. Come on, we’re not stupid.

The answer to Toynbee’s question is: yes, you bloody well can. Unless you really are content for the UK to become a nation of Sun-reading morons, you have to accept that we all benefit from a more educated society. We need people with degrees in science, maths and engineering; we also need people with liberal arts degrees. A degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University or in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford might or might not equip you ideally for the job market; but a society that has politicians, journalists and businessmen with such degrees is a more civilised society than one that has not. I would also challenge Toynbee’s complacent assumption that people from poorer backgrounds have no university ambitions, therefore no interest in paying taxes toward universities.

The government is attempting to construct a figleaf for this assault on students and universities with talk of some of the proceeds from increased tuition fees going to fund the education of students from poorer backgrounds, etc. Which rather disproves the other argument used to justify the assault: that graduates benefit from getting better-paid jobs. Of course, everyone knows that a bachelor’s degree is not exactly a ticket to untold wealth and unlimited employment opportunities, particularly in the current economic climate. But if it were true that even with high tuition fees a degree pays for itself, then why would students from poorer backgrounds need bursaries to pay these fees ?

In fact, these bursaries are simply a means by which families with children in higher education will have to contribute to the cost of other children in higher education, while rich families without such children get to enjoy a lighter tax burden. And they ignore the fact that students from better-off families whose parents refuse to help with their education are in practice just as poor as those from poorer backgrounds. But none of this window-dressing can obscure the fact that massively reducing state funding for higher education while massively raising tuition fees is in practice a redistribution of wealth at the expense of ordinary working-class and middle-class people who want to go to university and their families, in favour of rich people and corporations who will ultimately benefit from the tax cuts.

My solution to the funding crisis ? Cut expenditure on higher education if you have to; reduce the number of bad institutions and Mickey Mouse courses; reduce the number of places for mediocre students. But don’t penalise talent and achievement; don’t raise tuition fees for real students studying real courses at real universities.

I urge readers to demonstrate at Westminster against the assault on higher education on Wednesday, 10 November at 12 noon.

Monday, 8 November 2010 Posted by | Education, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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