Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Porter Argument

Today Parliament votes on the Coalition's proposals for higher education funding. The stuff that has provoked student protests unseen since... well, quite a while really. One university don commented after a particularly nasty demonstration, "Oh no, none of our students were involved, it was in the morning".

The point I find amazing is this: well - before I get there, what I don't find amazing is the question of raising tuition fees. And I don't find the two-faced cant of the Labour Party amazing either - they introduced tuition fees, increased them, introduced the living allowance, increased it - and all after fighting elections saying they would do no such thing. So they put forward the Browne Review which is the foundation for the current legislation (though rather improved by the Lib Dems in the Coalition, really) and now oppose it saying it's terrible. It would be worse if they were still in power. No - I don't find their opportunism amazing; cheap - yes; amazing, no.

What is amazing is that a huge sea change has occurred in the nature of higher education funding and no-one has debated it. Time was, having a university-educated sector of the population was seen as advantageous to society, a social good, something that made life better for the whole nation. Therefore when it came to looking at funding, it was obvious that in some way society should be responsible for some of the funding.

Now, a university education is suddenly accepted as a lifestyle choice. A personal thing. Self improvement. So you should pay for it yourself. The state isn't there to make you feel better about yourself.

How did this happen? And why is no-one fighting it?

This change is most classicly revealed in the porter & the doctor argument, simply accepted as a self-evident truth, which I heard repeated on BBC Radio Wales this morning as I waited to comment on the altogether weightier matter of Prince William's upcoming marriage guidance sessions (a whole other story). Some well-educated and posh sounding woman said: "Why should a hospital porter have to pay anything towards the education of a doctor in the same hospital, when that doctor is probably earning £100,000 a year plus?" Argument made, education is about self-improvement, it's not a social good, it only benefits the individual.

Except...

I hope that porter never needs an operation. Or he may discover there was a social good in educating doctors after all. It wasn't all about self-improvement. It advantaged society to send the doctor to university. Maybe the porter benefitted, and maybe everyone should contribute to this?

Have we totally let go of "Society" as a concept? The way we are looking at paying for higher education right now - yes we have. And we haven't even realised it, debated it, thought about it. All we have is a cheap opposition too stupid to realise that here is a fantastic political issue - the party spouting the "Big Society" are abandonning all pretence at any society at all. God gives us the politicians we deserve. What a state we are in to deserve this.

4 comments:

Ricky Carvel said...

Marcus, you and I are both old enough to have been lucky enough to go to University in the days of no tuition fees and student grants.

I say 'lucky' enough, truth was, in the old days (yes, the 1980s) only about 15% of school leavers went to university ad had to compete - usually on academic grounds - for places. These days it is closer to 50% of school leavers who go on to university. There is almost no competition for places (actually, at the University I work for, that changed this year for the first time in ages, but...), students seem to think that they deserve a place, just by being born.

Someone somewhere has to pay for all these additional places. The tax payer can't afford it anymore.

Why is nobody suggesting cutting student numbers?

the_exile said...

Nice piece Marcus and a point well made I think.

I'm not sure things would be any different at all if Labour were still in power - but this is not to defend their about-face. They would be doing their thing (for better or worse) and the others would be opposing it out of political ambition. Sadly, it seems the 'opposition' seems to take their name too literally and seems to be to oppose blindly whatever the government proposes except in extraordinary circumstances. I can see that it gives the parties something to throw at each other during election time - but that should not be the focus for the other 240 weeks in the life of a parliament surely?

TheMuddledMarketPlace said...

sensible and well put

Marcus Green said...

Credit where credit is due. I received an email from an MP who had read this post and has invited me to the House of Commons next week to explain why I am wrong. And John Leech, Lib Dem MP for Manchester Withington is quoted in today's Guardian as saying: "I stick by the old fashioned principle that university education benefits the country and the economy as well as the individual. Graduates who are successful earn high wages, pay more taxes and repay the costs of their education that way." Which is not to advocate the Graduate Tax but rather to support Society I think. Obviously, I agree!