The battle of ideas cannot be kettled, although for us observing we can be distracted. So while media comments on anti-semitic remarks on a student leader’s facebook page (Independent today – Julie Birchell) or YouTube clips of a wheel chair bound protester handled roughly by police – the principles and vision of civil society is clouded in the fog of a propaganda war.
The question is who pays and how should the goods of higher education be distributed? Is this a good which benefits society the more people consume or is it such a personal benefit that the person studying should pay – the means of financing being the issue?
Homo economicus has been absent for too long (I’m back!) so this is something to sink the teeth into because economics might let you think about the answer to these questions.
To the question of who pays may be impacted by whether higher education is adding to human capital or an indication of the labour market value of the student. If adding to human capital, increasing the value of the economy, would mean that society has an interest in optimal higher education being consumed. If all higher education does is signal the value of employing graduate labour (by degree studied or university attended) then society does not have the same vested interest whilst the student has a pecuniary one.
My economics lecturer said how students were aghast when he suggested the private benefit of higher education suggested a contribution would be in order by students – something he had done for the last 20 years. My class were less horrified because the New Labour government of 1997 had just announced a U turn on tuition fees. We were not affected and demonstrations were muted for those to come. Oh the times they are a changing now.
Yet education is a political social good. The citizen that is numerate, literate, articulate and has financial means beyond survival has the chance not just to be a part of civil society – but to shape it. A hand to mouth existence does not allow this freedom till the dirt of the poor is washed away by the blood of the oppressor, by the hand that had nothing in it to lose.
Yet that calls for the focus to be on primary and secondary schools – for when they fail students the prospect of higher education is as illusory as winning X Factor. If higher education is a means of entry to the political elite, or the good life, it becomes a matter of urgency that we need good schools (though not the only thing a key factor not least for women).
However even if we raise attainment levels, the odds of someone from a poor background going to University is about 2 times less than from a rich background with the same attainment. Debt aversion is cited as being a major disincentive, rather than seeing it as an investment in higher future earnings.
It might well be the perception of higher education needs changing to increase participation, and improving secondary and primary attainment, that need to be the focus of social justice. Stats that a richer student is 22 times more likely to go to Oxbridge then someone eating free school meals (today’s Independent) misses this crucial point of attitude and academic achievement prior to higher education. This is more then class war for want a be rebels.
The riots are the backdrop to some serious points on education and social justice – and a Conservative led government might explain why students are revolting now but not when Labour accepted the concept that students should directly contribute towards their education back in 1997.
So try and see past the visceral and decide what education system and society we need, an equitable way to pay for it, and the price we pay if we get it wrong. That really would be a revolution.