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Sunday, September 26, 2004


Bow to the elite

After yesterday’ post, I found a link to a paper [pdf link here] published by The Bow Group, a Conservative Party think-tank. This paper again frames the higher education debate almost entirely in terms of economics. The argument that can develop into the ‘democratic imperative’ is stifled before it can begin. Dr Lilico, an associate lecturer at University College, London, stops short, limiting the course of argument to simply, “more highly educated people make more interesting and sophisticated company and tend to enlighten their friends and associates”. In this quote is the seed of the democratic imperative for mass higher education, and the foundation of the argument that higher education cannot be limited to simply the people and professions that require higher education for the purposes of economic success.

Dr Lilico recommends that the top 10-12% of students, considered academically, should receive grants. The next 23-25% should receive loans, while anyone outside this group will have to self-fund their university education. Dr Lilico argues that this will enable the poorest, yet gifted, students to go to university, suggesting that background will cease to be an issue in deciding whether the most talented go to university. The reasoning underpinning this argument is that in an entirely loan-based system poor students worry whether they can afford to go to university and therefore universities take on less academically talented students from more financially secure backgrounds. Creating a level playing field for the top 10-12% will remove this worry.

Let us say that he is right with regard to the psychology of poor students. It still remains that he does not address the role of background in determining the level of academic attainment achieved at 18. Unless we are to argue that teaching and schooling makes no difference to academic attainment, we must conclude that teaching and schooling do make a difference. We must therefore say that a student who has attended a school with a poor learning environment (for whatever reason) would have scored higher in tests of academic attainment had they attended a school with a better learning environment. We might want to argue, ‘so what’, and suggest that at 18 the person is fixed in terms of academic ability, measured with complete accuracy by A-Level examinations. This is, of course, nonsense. Background must either be taken into account, or higher education must be open and accessible to people who have not achieved at A-Level but nevertheless possess the potential. If Dr Lilico were really serious about a level playing field to select the academically gifted, he would suggest liquidating the private school system in this country and redistributing their resources, both economic and social. As usual with Tory policy, this report is little more than a cover for maintaining social distinctions and inequalities, while illogically, but strategically successfully, denying the role of class.

But there is a further strand to Dr Lilico’s argument. This is that the market should be employed (though in some cases guided by the visible hand of the Conservatives) to decide how many people go to university, and what courses they take. I accept that, considered solely in terms of vulgar economics, degrees like Sociology, English Literature, History and Philosophy produce very little direct economic return. Considered with such though such a debased, decivilising lens, these degrees only economic purpose is to act as ‘signifiers’, to mark people of quality apart from the crowd. But, of course, they have another purpose. They increase understanding and knowledge of both the holders of the degree and there social connections. And as such, for an effective democracy (or indeed a market), the benefits of this standard and level of education need to be distributed throughout the population. We need children of all economic backgrounds to grow up in households where learning and thinking are respected and valued activities. We need people of all professional standings to be as educated as possible, to enable them to articulate their own democratic demands and to properly assess the arguments of others.

Unfortunately, Dr Lilico would limit education to an elite, shifting our democracy further along the scale towards oligarchy. He might argue that it would be rule by the talented, the educated, or, to borrow from Ayn Rand, the good. But the class of ‘the good’ would be effectively fixed. Philosophy and the like would be degrees reserved for those with financial security, a signifier, true, but a mark of class above and beyond it being a mark of talent. The children of these people would grow up in a house, and very probably a community, where learning is respected, and they would then take the top 10-12% of fully funded places. We would effectively create a tax-subsidised aristocracy of the educated. And as we leave the rest of the population uneducated, relatively speaking, how could they engage in a democratic debate to challenge this? They could not, and democracy, government by debate and argument, would become a smoke-screen for government by a few that have arranged the tools and strategies of debate firmly in their ownership.

You might argue that Britain is already like this. Fine, it may be. But that is not an argument for producing arguments that justify this arrangement. The task is to change it. You might argue that economic imperatives must be considered in determining higher education policy. Fine, I have not argued against this. I have simply argued that there are greater values that need to be defended. We cannot expect democracy to fall into our lap. Norman Mailer has written, “democracy… is the noblest form of government that we have yet evolved” and warns that is needs constant protection and promotion. It is not achieved, I argue, by deregulation and individualistic market policies. That produces either barbaric mob rule or the despotic rule of the powerful, though this despotism may be enlightened, humane and relatively civilised. I often argue that voting stations should be open for a week, that large chunks of the media should be turned over to politics and debate, and that public space should be employed for democratic ends rather than determined by commercial demands. ‘But it will cost money’, people argue. I say ‘yes, but it is a small price to pay to help build the most democratic state that we can’.

I'm a son of a fairly wealthy man.

I will hopefully go onto become a wealthy man myself.

Why should those poorer than myself be forced to pay for my university education? I'm after all going university to benefit myself not them.

You may argue that the skills I develop will help the rest of society and I'd agree with you but it still seems strange that when I'm the one getting the most benefit there are those who argue that I'm the only one who shouldn't contribute.

By all means let's have some of the cost met by the state but surely those taking the degree should be expected to pay towards it as well. Perhaps that way people would stop and consider whether the degree was actually useful and worthwhile.

To slightly contradict myself I do however agree that we shouldn't see a university education just in terms of employment and monetary worth...I mean there's drinking and casual sex to consider as well.

Will Cooling, whose not the least bit bitter that he’s stuck at home for another year

Writer of Thursday's Daily Pulse, a weekly column of political commentary and spelling mistakes
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