Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Politics of Class Envy 1: Higher Education

So now we have decided that tuition fees are to rise. They are to leave an average student with a debt on graduation of £40k or more and that is if they live cheaply. There will of course be bursaries and grants for the poor. Where does this leave the country's aspiring 18 year olds?

The very rich (those whose parents could easily afford to send their children to private education) will still be able to afford university for their kids. Drop in the ocean. I'm going to approximate this household income at £150k pa for 1 child family and add £40k pa per additional child to keep them in this bracket. Remember £150k = £90k post tax and National Insurance for mortgage, food, clothes, holidays etc and then the fees and living costs of their children. I know the charges aren't up front but 40k debt for someone about to embark on 3 years of beans on toast living is pretty daunting. Knowing that you won't need a loan to cover the costs is massively important. The very rich will still be in this class.

The well off (who can just about afford to send their children to private education) will have to re-plan retirement as each child will now have to be paid for for a little longer. £100k pa per household with £30k pa per additional child. Of course, they could leave their children to run up eye-watering debts but no parent wants that.

The comfortable (who work hard, will never be millionaires, but have a good enough salary to allow a stay at home parent, probably rely on state education or academic-related bursaries for private education) are totally screwed. And I mean proper fucked. £60k pa and they haven't a hope of any grants, but if you think you can find 10k pa per child extra from a post taxed income of £40k pa for an entire household you're living in a parallel universe. The only way their kids go to uni is if they plan on earning less than £21k a year so avoid paying anything back, or gamble on saddling themselves with a £40k mortgage aged 18.

The poor (who have a low household wage, have had to rely on state education or means-tested or academic-related bursaries for private education) will hopefully be provided for by the state by means of grants etc. Those at the top end of this bracket though are still going to have to cover living costs and again gamble on being able to pay it back. Obviously as student debt is only ever paid back as a proportion of salary above a threshold, they won't have to worry about not being able to afford each month like a normal loan. However, anyone taking out these loans are going to be paying them back well into their 30s and 40s. If you're in that bracket now, imagine £500 per month extra going out of your account. Doesn't seem like such  a small price to pay now does it?

Clearly this is to segregate a society that has no obvious divisions with each section merging into the next, but I mean it as a broad assessment.

So our egalitarian society excludes the financial centre ground (politically termed the middle classes since by class these days all anyone means is income and assets). £100k, 3 kids, choose which is your favourite, the others are off to the job centre. £60k, 1 kid, remortgage the house and hope he/she comes through, £60k 3 kids, don't even think about it. I would have been unlikely to attend university under this policy. My parents were too well off for help but could never afford the exorbitant amounts required to now pursue higher education. It would have been down to me taking on an enormous debt - a big gamble for 18 year olds in a country struggling to educate the young in sensible fiscal policy. We now have a university fees policy that will guarantee a decline in standards due to financial rather than academic entry standards. Well bowled boys.

It may seem as if I am somewhat hypocritical here, complaining at spending cuts I have championed, but I understand why they are making them (to save money) but disagree with their methods. I have a better plan.

Labour, the party of politics by class envy, decided 50% of school leavers should attend university. Did they consult market leaders, employers or academia before making this oddly round number statement? Of course not, but why would they - this was the Government who coined soundbite politics - pick something short that even the tabloids can't misspell, use easy numbers and then explain it all by reference to outdated classist bigotry.

Graduate tax for those who enter lucrative jobs? It's called income tax. Non-pecuniary benefits of the higher-educated entering public service? Obvious.

Why do we pay for higher education? We don't pay for kids to go to Harrow, why do we pay for them to go to Cambridge? Because we expect something back from them. We send the higher academic minds to university so that we as a nation might profit from the development of their minds in higher education. Not sure everyone knows that, but that's why. They might become politicians, generals, poets, humanitarians, engineers, philosophers, religious ministers, or countless more. The point is, there are certain people who are suited to higher education - the expansion of the mind through academia. There are many, indeed most, who are not.

It is not that someone not intellectually gifted won't benefit at all from university, it actually comes down to cost. We cannot afford to put everyone through higher education, indeed clearly we now can't afford half of everyone. So we have to choose who we fund to go there.

I am crap at football. Always have been, always will be - just haven't the skill or physical prowess. It's genetics. My little sister would be a crap brickie because she couldn't carry a hod empty, let alone with bricks in it - tiny build. Genetics. So, I imagine we'd all agree the taxpayer shouldn't have to pay for extensive football coaching for me or bricklaying training for my sister. Not because they begrudge us the chance to improve in an area of weakness but because we have a finite amount of money and we aren't good investments. Neither of us have an issue with that.

But if you take Simple Simon and tell him academia isn't for him because he ain't built that way, you are elitist scum. No, instead tell him he isn't a good enough person until he's done a course at Nowhere Ex-Polytechnic in Underwater Basket Weaving, let him build up 3 years of debts and then let him loose in a job market he would have been better off joining 3 years earlier. Why? Because all those rich Tory bastards get that, so why shouldn't you? The politics of class envy. Thank God for Labour. We'll get onto this in more detail later.

So what is my alternate proposition to save the same amount? Simple. Instead of making the better courses at the better universities more expensive do the opposite. Spend a bit of money on the admissions system to make it academically fairer. Then charge the least to those who win places on academic merit (including potential for those I hear complaining of private school advantage in actual results - hence the money added to allow for interviews etc) at the best universities. Those who want then to study a degree that isn't going to help the country in the long run, pays for it themselves. So Underwater Basket Weaving at Nowhere Ex-Polytechnic would cost a lot. If you want to go - go for it - but the taxpayer isn't picking up the bill. It might sort out much of the issue with people coming out of university qualified for nothing but pub-crawling and debt-creating when those courses that produce them become less attractive.

The proliferation of pointless degrees at useless institutions has led to the devaluation of British higher education qualifications and the draining of the higher education budget. It's time we remembered who we want to go to university and why, rather than just doing the sums on the current intake and then looking at who are the easy targets to hit. If this policy comes to fruition it will be the ruin of British academia and one of the most backward social engineering projects ever embarked upon. Lots of points to pick up on later, but I fear this is getting on for thesis length, but probably not standard (well, maybe at Nowhere Ex-Poly)...


  1. Spot on. When a University education was something only the brightest could aspire to, there was immense competition and gaining a place at any University was an achievement. The state paid the tuition fees to recognise that achievement - a quasi scholarship, if you like. Furthermore, those from less well-off homes were awarded a living grant that reflected the financial circumstances of the family, so that nobody who deserved the education was deprived it. Now that ANYBODY can go to a so-called University to study something useless and with no academic merit, the system has fallen down, and is now going to deprive many deserving students, in the name of accessibility. Crackers!

  2. Yup - Discrimination in the name of fairness – madness
    What should we do?
    Make it free for the top 20% of the school leaving population with decent living grants for the genuinely poor.
    Make degrees shorter but full time like school or a job, rather than the 3 year pub crawl which most degrees have become.
    Allow universities to offer additional paid places for those who do not meet the top 20% academic criteria and overseas students.
    But that all sounds a little too like common sense to be politically correct!