Give it to us straight
The coalition must admit the downsides of its reforms, demands Kevin Fong
In the 1980s I spent many a Saturday afternoon at the flicks watching Brat Pack movies, marvelling at their artistic depth. Until, that is, one day my slightly more sophisticated mate pointed out that they were essentially films about a bunch of rich kids with nothing to complain about, who spent their time complaining about everything.
Watching the tuition-fee protests unfold last week, it occurred to me that there’s a danger that the public will think precisely this of the students who took to the streets. I would guess that the broad perception is that this is about middle-class kids lamenting the fact that the taxpayer won’t pay to help them get ahead in life. This erroneous but successfully promoted impression is the thing that may make these cuts and the revision in higher education funding strategy acceptable to the wider public.
At the same time, it distracts us from the meat of the issue: the question of whether or not it’s right for the state to continue its withdrawal from higher education. It casts a degree-level education solely as a product consumed by the individual, with a retail price that in turn reflects its value to the purchaser as a financial investment.
Considering the value of education to the individual as opposed to its value to the wider public is a useful way to focus the mind when making policy. It makes it seem obvious that the financial burden for funding higher education should be transferred as far as possible from the latter to the former. That’s an argument that you can make and one I would even say I understand, at least in part, given the austerity of the times.
And yes, you can argue in return that our system of university education was crafted over centuries to do more than churn out gross domestic product-building fodder. But these are genuinely unprecedented times and they require a drastic re-evaluation of what our universities are for and what they do. I recognise entirely the perceived need to resort to the solution of uncapped tuition fees to fix the UK academy’s funding gap and keep it globally competitive. This is, after all, rock-and-hard-place time and the cuts have to come from somewhere.
True, I have my reservations about this new view of what higher education is really for and worry that in rebalancing the whole system in this way, we run the very real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But that is not what gets me shouting at the telly of an evening.
What truly upsets me is the attempt to sell this as though it were something progressive, something that will lead to a fairer system with greater opportunities for all those of sufficient ability. It quite clearly won’t. Higher tuition fees will, without doubt, make our most excellent universities more excellent still. But it will make those institutions still more exclusive; and more exclusive in this context means less affordable to people of average income.
And even that could be sort of OK if someone were to go on record and admit that this, unfortunately, is the cold, hard truth of the case; the price we have to pay for having timed our overexpansion of higher education to coincide with the mother of all recessions.
You could tell me that the government has been forced to radically alter both the architecture of higher education and its raison d’etre in British society. You could admit that in so doing we will inevitably reduce accessibility to the best of those institutions. You could tell me that there really was no option, that the guys across the other side of the House would probably have done the same. And if you really wanted to push the boat out, you could admit that it actually fits quite nicely with the small-government ideology of the party in power.
Go on record with all of that and we could have a proper grown-up discussion about those things - who knows, I might even agree with you by the end. But instead we’re out there pretending that this will be some great and unlimited good; that after all of this is said and done, we expect higher education to be exactly as wonderful as it is now in every way - only better. That proposition is at least as ridiculous and difficult to swallow as the plots of those Brat Pack movies I used to watch.
Higher education, at least in my view, is about more than making sure students get better jobs with better pay. That may be its principal measurable benefit to the student and to society, but it is by no means the only, or most important, reason for having a system of university education.
Our oldest universities have withstood many economic downturns and were founded on principles that held sacred the value of knowledge and its pursuit. As far as I can tell, they were not originally intended to function as financial instruments.
Kevin Fong is a consultant in anaesthesia at University College London Hospital, honorary senior lecturer in physiology at UCL and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.