It’s dejecting to observe the drip drip of intentions of higher education institutions with regards to tuition fees. Aston University is going to go for £9,000 on the basis of its graduates comparatively excellent employability prospects. Under the new world order where higher learning is a financial investment, Aston is the equal of any in the Russell Group (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and our other most successful research-led institutions). More on why Aston is right to charge £9,000 in a bit.
If you are learning a profession in an academic institution, then it is correct to expect some attention to your employability. Beyond that, I consider employability a pestilent agenda now colonising higher learning – and not because it is beneath a university’s mission but because it belongs elsewhere. The new role of inculcating employability, set apart as it is, is clearly conceived as something separate from inculcating academic attitudes and academic practice. Why should a Shakespearian scholar be expected to divert her attention to her students’ employability? Will she even have the same view as our policy-makers about what employability is? And if the employability agenda is hived off into a self-contained department to be taught separately as a subsidiary course, why should a university’s already-stretched budget be diverted into non-academic pursuits? Employability is of great intrinsic worth, and it no less than critical to a dignified life – but when a government forces responsibility for it onto a university and sets things up so that a university is rewarded or punished on the basis of its employability performance, something crucial to the university is at risk – its independence. So, it’s a perversity of the current system that government withdrawal from funding arts, humanities and social sciences, along with its rhetoric about growth and salaries, is less likely to usher in an era of academic independence than an era of narrow consumerism. Hope I’m wrong.
Keep in mind how many breakthroughs have been discovered through the speculative – even whimsical – investigations of scholars unencumbered by worldly concerns or any sense of ‘impact’. Thought-controlled wheelchairs. Penicillin. GPS. DNA. x-ray. A phenomenon is discovered, happened upon. Its properties are explored. Then comes the applied thinking which looks for a fit in the world. Or perhaps a fit in the world is discovered in the process of looking for something else. Only then can the entrepreneurs realise the ideas, get them manufactured and into circulation. So there’s a whole layer of the iceberg of our stuff that is totally unknown to us. That’s just the physical and biological sciences – think of the work of Jeremy Bentham, who thought through the concept of utilitarianism. Think of John Stuart Mill’s concept of free speech. Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Frankfurt School, a group whose thinking is incredibly influential and has spread throughout our society in ways I am still discovering (I could sit down and use this new concept-linking search engine from the University of Bradford to find out how the ideas have percolated). Only the most visionary funders would have bet on these in advance because they were outside the imaginations of their discoverers. You couldn’t put a price on these ideas, because they were yet to be had. We have to allow academics to be free, no matter how unlovable many of them are. Not that being an arsehole while referring to yourself as ‘free thinking’ should be rewarded, but academia isn’t a popularity contest and mustn’t ever be.
A large proportion of my institution’s graduates belong in Pink’s, Page’s and Brin’s free-thinking, experimental, speculative working worlds. But in today’s working world employers tend to be wary of divergent thinkers, particularly at the graduate entry level. They are a bit of a liability to profits. In today’s working world the most employable graduates will be those who show promise in dutifully reproducing the working cultures into which they are admitted. You’ll have to have done your time to be trusted to take a risk. But if you are a thoughtful person who takes an academic interest in the world around you, you may be drawn to an arts, humanities or social science course, and from it you may well emerge – initially – a more troubled, less decisive person than when you began. Ideas are not skills, and you may not on the face of it be very employable, at first. And yet these people are likely to be the holistic thinkers, the social and political reformers, the advocates for change to solve the worlds problems, the social entrepreneurs, the ones who tackle society’s embedded injustices. Think Joseph Stiglitz, Martha Nussbaum. I can’t say for sure but my hunch is that these for the bulk of the people who recognise that high wages are somebody else’s exploitation, and eschew them.
So why should Aston charge £9,000? First, there’s the Ratners effect. Sell cheap and risk being thought of as cheap. What does cheap or budget learning look like to an employer? Like something that will require remedial intervention? Leeds Metropolitan was one of the first of the post-92 group of newer universities to declare, and it said it would set at £8,500 (not such a huge different from £8999.99).
And secondly and more importantly – and apparently a little known fact – if you set at £9,000 you can charge less for some courses, but if you set at less you can’t charge more. To charge much less than £9,000 is like saying you don’t expect to ever develop to the extent that you can compete with the Russell Group for students. Why would you condemn yourself to a second rate status by pricing yourself out of what has now become a competition?
That’s why it is only logical for higher education institutions to charge as high as they can. And why the Office For Fair Access are going to end up helping the elite universities become more elite and condemning the others to giving students an underfunded education. That is a perversion of the idea of ‘fair’.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In Germany it’s different. Academic and technical side by side but equal, as they should be. Higher education either state funded or very low fees. Good rates of participation. Out of recession like a phoenix. What’s stopping us in the UK?
- From The Guardian’s Data Blog on 30th March: tuition fees 2012 – what the universities are charging, including Bishop Grosseteste, £7,500 and St Mary’s University College Twickenham, £8,000. I haven’t come across either of those before, which is to illustrate as Sarah observes in the comments below, that it doesn’t cost any less for these newer and smaller institutions to deliver a course, and because of economies of scale, may cost more. So you can look at courses as costs to students, or you can look at them as costs to institutions. The issue of fees seems very different from each perspective.
Moreover, given that the parents will already have paid higher taxes as a result of earning more, this is double taxation.