Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Dilettante on The Student Journals: Students are consumers, and should be thankful for it

My latest TSJ contribution is a defence of one of my earlier pieces about the relevance of student 'unions'. Another contributor, Tom Newham, rebutted that piece by asserting that higher education was a public good, not a private one.

So in my next article I have set out why I believe students benefit from higher education being treated as a private good. Read it here or below.


Students are consumers, be thankful for it

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how student unions in their current form are ill-serving student interests. Fellow contributor Tom Newham then rebutted me. In wont of anything compellingly better to address in my new article, I’ve decided to have a go at rebutting him in turn. Happily, his piece was angled in such a way that I can attempt that without simply repeating myself, so here goes.

First, let’s deal with his practical objections to my proposal for a consumer comparison service for students being of greater use than posturing ‘unions’. Tom is right when he points out that, for the moment at least, fees are capped at £9,000 p/a. However, this does not invalidate the worth of a ‘Which?’-style organisation, because there is a world of different between value for money and price.

Denied a market pricing mechanism, a lot of very different degrees from different institutions will be masquerading behind the same price without being of the same value. Things such as graduate employment levels, facilities, big-name lecturers, teaching time and quality, industrial placements, travel opportunities, city liveability and more will all go unaccounted for in the price of a degree.

This makes it harder for students to make an informed decision and serves to make a university-focused consumer information organisation more useful than if the price mechanism were in operation, not less. By allowing prospective students to easily compare different courses over a broad range of criteria, such an organisation would do immense good.

Beyond the technicalities, the meat of the distinction Tom drew between himself and I was that I view tertiary education as a private good, and he a public one.

Now, I make no secret of the fact that I consider a degree to be a largely private good, and as I will explain students should be very glad that it is such.

Tom asserts that “the public sees [degree level education] as a vital public good.” Perhaps, if pollsters ask them a certain way, they do. But the problem is, how much degree level education to the public think is a public good?

Once you start using the ‘public good’ defence, you need to fit higher education into a national-utilitarian mechanism for calculating that good and what level of it the public good actually requires.

With higher education, especially the arts, this can be difficult. It is easy to view a public road as a public good, for example, or a public park. But is every degree inherently a public good? It would be hard to persuade the public of that.

If university degrees were seen in such a fashion, then the distribution of funding would have to be centrally planned. The publics’ elected representatives would calculate how many degrees of a given type the country required, and would fund those. There would be ferocious competition for those places. ‘Hard’ subjects like the sciences, medicine and engineering would be overwhelmingly favoured, in line with rational centralisation and popular prejudice.

That isn’t how higher education works in Britain, though. Instead, the government loans school-leavers the money to study anything they like, within the scope of their A Levels. It is left to students to choose what they want to study, where they want to study it and how far they want to study it.

This privilege, the ability to choose for yourself in accordance with your interests and desires and without reference to a central plan drawn up with the interests of the majority in mind (the power, in short, to be an empowered consumer) stems from the fact that your university experience is largely a private good.

Yes, a certain number of graduates in a certain range of subjects are good for the nation. But in all likelihood, your degree is not, in any meaningful capacity. If like me you are or were an Arts student, the chances of your degree being viewed as a ‘vital public good’ plummet yet further.

If higher education were drawn up with a view to ‘the public good’ then the radical expansion thereof launched by Labour would not have happened. That expansion was not driven by the needs of the British employment market, as the inexorable rise in graduate overqualification makes clear. It also rendered tertiary education vastly more expensive, ending forever the days of free tuition.

If a government – Tory or Labour – were to run higher education purely through the prism of the public good they would pare it down dramatically, and there would be intense political focus on which degrees received funding. It would be an undoubtedly meritocratic but elite niche to which most of us would not have access.

Instead, British higher education operates on the belief that more people should have the chance to better themselves by having a shot at higher education. The government loans us the up-front cost so that one’s material station in life is no barrier to entry, and it is then up to us to choose our path through university to try to make that loan worthwhile – whether the reward is material, intellectual or spiritual.

It is this that allows us to act as empowered consumers – choosing our field and place of study  – rather than the meek receivers of an allotment of degree opportunities calculated and distributed by the state.

In short, British governments view their role as ensuring broad access to a private good, not the utilitarian supervision of a public one. And if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of students studying history, theatre, gender studies or any other niche or ‘soft’ degree which popular prejudice and political pressure would probably not stand to see subsidised in any numbers, you should be very thankful for that.


  1. Can you be so sure that all graduates have a positive effect on UK Plc? Don't market forces and immigration of skills explain why 100,000's of British graduates remain unemployed?

  2. My point is exactly that all graduates don't have a positive effect, hence my referencing the UK's high graduate over-qualification and unemployment levels and claiming that a rational 'public good approach' would slash tertiary education.

  3. Are you suggesting, that the Education Sectors' assurance that UK heaven is a place where everyone earns substantial incomes by simply being highly qualified, went up in a puff of smoke? That the Education! Education! Education! mantra foisted on the UK by Tony Blair, was a failure? Or even, that EMA / JSA was just a ploy to secure votes for Labour? Disgraceful.

  4. I'm preaching that very heresy, yes.