From Sam Browse at Sheffield Students’ Union
In a fit of boredom, I read NUS’s blueprint for higher education funding last week. You’ll probably be unsurprised to find I was disappointed. If we’re to get anywhere in the debate, we have to stop talking about higher education as though it’s an individual indulgence and not a social necessity…
You could reasonably suggest that the development of compulsory education in Britain, and in fact any other country, has never been for the benefit of those who were to be educated. It would be interesting to see if levels of education corresponded with the type of economy a given society is based upon. In feudal Britain, at least, formal education for the majority of people would have been minimal. The type of labour required of the everyday peasantry would not have necessitated an understanding of anything beyond the demands of their vocation. Expanding on this observation, we could say formal education systems develop not from a desire of the general “betterment” of the individual, but from the status of the individual as an economic actor (the labourer) within a given economic system.
The state system of education, then, even today, is an economically necessary institution insofar as it provides a literate and numerate workforce, and not because it’s nice to send kids to school and “teach” them about the world.
There is much discussion, at least in my area of academic interest, of the knowledge economy and the ‘New Capitalism’ (although I’m not sure if there is anything intrinsically “new” about this formation). The transition of western economies from a manufacturing base to tertiary forms of industry (finance, marketing, specialist advice etc) constitutes this shift from the “old” capitalism to the “new” type (although I’m by no means an economics expert). Terminological issues aside, there seems to be much agreement that Britain has moved into a phase of economic development that places a premium on knowledge.
Knowledge, economy and education are, as I have already suggested, three tightly linked concepts. It seems strikingly obvious that within the current economic context standards of education must be higher if Britain is to sustain its position as a leader in the global economy.
However, this quite mercenary point seems entirely missing in contemporary discussion of higher education, particularly higher education funding. Disappointingly, this is true of NUS’s blueprint for HE funding. Far from being a “radical” solution to the problems in the funding system, the blueprint is a novel re-articulation of the same tired ideology that has led us into the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
The problem is the basic premise of the blueprint and all such “stakeholder” oriented approaches to HE funding. The basic premise is that “you can’t get something for nothing”. This individualist view of the funding system is damaging. It is entirely the wrong view to hold, especially at this particular stage of economic development.
Now, more than ever, the HE system requires massive levels of investment. This is a collective social and economic requirement, not the indulgence of an individual. Higher education is beginning to take on the functional character of the existing compulsory education system. This is a consequence of the changing face of our economy, a knowledge economy. For this reason, the government was entirely right to aim for higher levels of university entrants. This is what the economic context needs. However, it should not balk at the public investment this requires and neither should we, the student movement.
Investment in the institutions that create knowledge, the universities, is a necessary precondition for economic growth. Growth is the only way out of the current recession. Importantly, greater investment is not only important for the present, but has consequences for the future. Any discussion of a green “New Deal” is meaningless without greater investment in researching high technology alternatives to fossil fuels.
In suggesting that exclusively students should pay for higher education, the NUS blueprint invites us to view public services through a “you get what you pay for” lens. To be truly progressive, we need to advocate solutions to the problem that don’t rely on this dated, individualistic ideology. At this stage, higher education is socially and economically necessary. Let’s start treating it that way.