A missed opportunity

Newsnight on student fees on BBC2 last night was a missed opportunity. Neither of the Oxbridge academics challenging David Willets made the crucial point that the fees increase replaces the teaching grant for arts & humanities which was removed in the government’s spending review announced earlier, and that the whole scheme is intended to complete the marketisation of higher education which was started by Blair, including paving the way to private universities.

In fact, these elite academics were less articulate about the issues than the students I filmed a few weeks ago at U.W.E. in Bristol, a model ‘new university’ (see Teachers and Learners in Bristol), who resent enormously what’s being done, and believe, as one of them put it, that they’re being sold ‘the “student experience” the same way that people are sold the luxury cruise liner experience or the 3D cinema experience’. They are being ‘roped in to paying as much as nine grand a year for an education that the government isn’t even going to be funding any more… it turns us into customers rather than students who are here to learn and gain an education’. What’s at issue is the question of what an education is: ‘it’s becoming more customer-based, more profit-based, more capitalist-based, than it is about growing and expanding your mind’. The implication is clear: to hand education over to the profit motive is a perversion of education, which to fulfil its own nature needs to be free and disinterested.

Why are these academics being so polite? Why don’t they have the courage of what I assume are their convictions? And shouldn’t a properly briefed interviewer try to put the government minister on the spot, instead of letting him get away with the argument that the graduate tax doesn’t amount to a student debt? Logically speaking perhaps it doesn’t, but that’s not the way the bulk of students (and their parents) see it. (This is also Blair’s responsibility, because he it was who introduced student loans to finance fees.) The result is that the government has what media-speak calls an image problem.

But it’s more than that. The real problem is that education is not a commodity, but in the language of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the performance of a service. The notion of a market in education is in fact a deception, a sleight of the invisible hand, which can only be sustained by the wasteful managerialist apparatus dedicated to measuring something that cannot in truth be quantified, mischievously called student satisfaction. The right way to satisfy students is to stretch their minds, not ask them to fill in pointless questionnaires. And then the officers who have to collate this kind of meaningless data could devote their efforts to real support for staff and students, and genuinely contribute to enriching the student experience.

Or perhaps you could reduce the cost of university administration by sending them off to work for the Inland Revenue bringing tax dodgers to book…

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