Issue 211 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: The end of free education

Gareth Jenkins

The Dearing Report on higher education marks a break with the past. Gone is the assumption that students have a right to study for a degree independent of their financial means. Education returns to being a privilege.

Paying for tuition fees combined with the replacement of the maintenance grant by a 100 percent loan will saddle students with debts for a long period of their working lives. The poorer the student's background, the higher the debt. The government's own private calculations suggest that 'worse off' students will face debts totalling £10,320, compared with more modest debts of £8,055 for 'better off' students.

The Tory government, supported by Labour, commissioned Sir Ron Dearing to come up with a solution to the funding crisis in higher education. His response is markedly different from that of Sir Lionel Robbins, who back in 1963 wrote the last report on higher education. Broadly speaking, where Robbins, in line with the postwar consensus, looked to state intervention, Dearing looks to the free market.

Robbins was conscious of how demand had lagged behind provision. Before the war only 2 percent of 19 year olds were in full time education. By 1962 that had risen to 7 percent. Qualification for entry into higher education varied widely according to social background. Nevertheless, the desire for education appeared to be affecting children of all classes. Alongside rising prosperity went raised expectations. His report rejected the idea that there was only a limited pool of talent and that expansion should stop before it diluted academic excellence. Two concerns motivated him. The first was that higher education should be accessible to all those capable of taking advantage of it. The second was that Britain risked falling behind its major international competitors. So he wanted to open up the system of higher education beyond the establishment elite and also to modernise it by elevating the status of science and technology.

It was taken for granted that the state would contribute funding, with the idea of a loan scheme for students rejected as a disincentive 'which might tend to diminish the supply of talent coming forward' and as discriminatory. The left found much to criticise in Robbins's liberal paternalism. The majority of students were in colleges of education and arts and technical colleges and their experience was in marked contrast to the pampered lives of Oxbridge undergraduates and their shabbier imitations in the provincial universities, on which Robbins based his ideal. One left wing critic wrote, in 1969, that this vast majority 'enjoyed neither the privileges, prestige nor the educational advantages of a liberal education. Neglected or ignored, deprived of social identity, they were condemned to the bleak wasteland of a cheap and grindingly utilitarian higher education.'

Between 1958 and the early 1960s that stark contrast was softened with the creation of seven new universities (Sussex, East Anglia, York, Kent, Essex, Warwick and Lancaster). They were more liberal and classless in appearance and provided the media with their abiding image of student radicalism and promiscuity. However, the university system as a whole was still conservative and it was this which clashed with raised student expectations to fuel revolt. In the late 1960s the Labour government also set about the creation of 31 polytechnics, virtually doubling higher education provision at a stroke. The justification for this cheapskate expansion of what became known as the 'binary divide' in higher education was that the polytechnics should be about 'applied' as opposed to 'pure' learning. To make sure they did not get out of hand financially or educationally, the government placed them under local government control and denied them the power to award their own degrees.

In practice, the ideological distinction between the two sectors faded almost from the beginning. This was for three interconnected reasons. The first was that the polytechnics themselves soon realised that the growth areas were the non-science subjects, such as sociology and the liberal arts. The second was that in order to staff them it had to appoint a layer of graduates many of whom had been radicalised by their time in the new universities. And the third reason was that the students themselves were not prepared to accept a lower status.

Of course, distinctions remained. The less generous funding meant that buildings were not as good as those in the universities (some were adapted factories). Classes tended to be bigger and resources such as libraries much poorer. In 1988 Tory legislation 'freed' the polytechnics from local authority control and in 1992 they abolished the binary divide. Today there are 115 universities and another 61 higher education institutions. Management in the former polytechnics rejoiced greatly over this liberation. They resented the fact that they had been the poor relations in higher education and celebrated their elevation to university status with fancy names, mottoes and heraldic crests. They also 'liberated' themselves from any vestiges of accountability. They proceeded to award themselves generous salaries and aped the lifestyles of corporation executives. Inevitably scandals erupted.

The expansion of the system has been colossal. In 1960 there were a little under 200,000 full time students in higher education. Now there are 1.1 million­1.6 million if all categories of students are included. Numbers have doubled in the past 20 years alone. One other change since the 1960s has been the growing diversity of the student body. In 1962-63 women made up only a quarter of the total. In 1995-96 they were over half. Mature entrants have also significantly increased from 41 percent in 1962-63 to 58 percent in 1995-96.

Higher education has also lost its exclusively upper class image. Of course, the sons and the daughters of the wealthy continue to dominate the 'best' universities. At the other end of the social spectrum, the sons and daughters of the unskilled manual working class continue to be poorly represented. The proportion of young people from this background in higher education is only 12 percent, double what it was five years ago, but tiny compared with nearly 80 percent participation of young people from upper professional backgrounds. And students from manual working class backgrounds are more likely to be at an ex-polytechnic, with more of them taking lower status courses.

The real advance since the 1970s has been among students from skilled manual or skilled white collar backgrounds. For them, as for many with more middle class backgrounds, going to university became much more of a norm than it was for their parents. This was the first generation which could afford to stay on past school leaving age, get A level qualifications and expect to go to university or polytechnic.

It may not have been the 'golden age' of higher education. But the post-Robbins higher education system was a real advance towards the ideal of open access. Between 1988 and 1993 the numbers entering higher education boomed as never before, bringing forward the government's target of having a third of young people participate in full time education by the year 2000.

The changes in higher education allowed the government to squeeze the whole of the system. The Tories changed the funding rules, forcing the universities to meet higher student targets in return for lower provision. While public funding in real terms increased by 45 percent in the 20 years up till 1996, the unit of funding per student fell by 40 percent.

The result has been disastrous. The combination of breakneck expansion and underfunding has worsened the quality of education in inverse proportion to the managerial smoothness of university mission statements. An effective binary divide has re-emerged, with a pecking order which looks remarkably like the old one.

The enormous strain placed on staff was ignored until the institutional structure itself began to crack. Many institutions went into the red and set about making staff redundant. Last year some vice-chancellors threatened to introduce top up fees unilaterally, a move which would have produced a two tier higher education system.

This then is the background to Dearing. He has taken the view that the crisis brought about by cuts in public funding can only be cured by the introduction of market values. Where Robbins argued that education had a value over and above its economic value, Dearing assumes no such distinction. Every relationship is recast in the language of the market. The bonds between the state, employers and students are seen as contractual­what Dearing calls a 'compact'. Universities become a cross between a shop where customers buy a service and a firm where they invest. The institution commits itself to providing high quality service, in return for which the student 'will invest time, effort and money'. No longer is the student interested in education as such; the student is, to use Dearing's term, an 'entrepreneur'.

Tuition fees, then, have little to do with not being able to afford a higher education system. Public spending on higher education, as a percentage of gross domestic product, has stayed the same for 20 years. Fees have everything to do with how Dearing sees Britain competing in the new economic order of global corporations. The importance of higher education is that it will be 'a key factor in attracting and anchoring the operations of global corporations'. If this is what is in demand then the student-entrepreneur will invest in higher education in order to enter the skilled jobs market­that will be his or her return.

At the same time, with skill demands constantly changing, the institutions of higher education will need to be at the forefront 'in offering opportunities for learning, throughout life, to individuals and their corporations'. Yet why assume this idealised world of global competition works for the benefit of the majority? Experience has shown how disastrous the operation of the free market has been for jobs. Dearing's emphasis on skills as the key to success is equally unreal. While it is true that computing and information technology have become essential to much white collar work, the jobs themselves are increasingly routinised. A degree is now no longer a passport to a secure, top level job. Just occasionally, some of this reality breaks through. Life long learning, Dearing says at one point, will meet 'the aspirations of individuals to re-equip themselves for a succession of jobs over a working lifetime and to manage the corresponding uncertainty with confidence.'

Here, Dearing is admitting that permanent job insecurity will be the norm. His promotion of an expanded higher education system based on part time study and lifelong learning seems progressive­except that the implication is that no one should expect a proper three year degree. Similarly Dearing's complaint that part time students at present have to pay fees while full time students do not seems a fair one­except that he equalises downwards by everyone having to pay.

The pretence is that the market gives equal opportunity to everyone. In practice it does not. It depends on class. Under the guise of greater access, Dearing will allow inequality to dominate who gets what. The more you can afford, the greater your life chances will be.

The introduction of fees opens the door to greater inequalities. There will be pressure for differential fees (as Dearing himself admits), which will be virtually irresistible. Prestigious institutions will claim that their degrees carry greater value on the job market and that it is only right for them to charge more. Educational choice will be reduced to a 'choice' between shopping at Harrods, Sainsbury or Netto. Only the wealthiest students will have access to the courses most likely to give them plum jobs. For the rest higher education will never be allowed to be more than higher training.

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