Higher education as a consumer good

I wrote this rant some time ago, when I felt the need to write something about the current state of UK higher education.  I don’t believe I ever put it elsewhere, so I’ll put it here.

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While the current financial crisis looms large, the immediate consequences seem devastating enough: high unemployment; the European debt crisis; collapsing banks and governments.  Yet off in the distance, something insidious lurks: a disastrous and irrevocable change in how we view the most essential elements of our society.

We have all seen and heard by now of the student loan problem that continues to worsen in America.  As it stands now, American higher education has to face the more than $1 trillion in unpaid student loan debt that has accumulated, a staggering figure that begs the question: what happens if it never gets paid?  How, in fact, do we expect new graduates to pay, when youth unemployment continues to skyrocket and increasing numbers of new degree-holders are forced to move back home to save money?

Underlying this, however, is a deeper assumption about the value and the place of education in society.  Education is not a birthright, not something to which anyone of sufficient cleverness is entitled; education is instead a bonus, an indulgence which requires significant financial resources.  

Until very recently, this was not the way higher education was provided in Britain.  University-level education was for many years provided for free, and students were given a small stipend on which to live.  Education was viewed as an investment, the cost society should pay to produce a vital and vigorous younger generation prepared for the challenges ahead.

In the last decade, this noble ideal has eroded away.  Starting with Tony Blair’s controversial introduction of tuition fees, and now culminating in David Cameron’s tripling of those fees, students are now consumers, taking on enormous debt on the promise of receiving a marketable education.  

At the same time, further changes to higher education will alter the criteria used to approve degree-granting institutions, allowing private education providers — the very same currently plaguing America, preying on the disenfranchised and the vulnerable to get student loan money flowing in — to gain a foothold in these isles.  Meanwhile, academic staff are losing their pension benefits, watching their pay stagnate, and seeing their most valued colleagues and assistants culled, all in the name of preserving the bottom line.

All of this is worrying, but more worrying perhaps is our complacency.  We academics sit and watch, wringing our hands fitfully; at best we attempt to fight back in our usual manner: lengthy, wordy diatribes written to an audience of our peers.

But this educational crisis demands more of us than that.  For once we have to crawl out from our laboratories, our studios and studies and basements full of computers, and emerge blinking into the sunlight.  We need to stamp our feet, make some noise, and stop the further degradation of higher education into yet another venue for consumerist greed and bitter, needless competition.

Otherwise we will be left with a system built entirely on the back of student debt, providing our expertise and knowledge for the benefit of an elite who do not care about education or research or discovery.  They will shed no tears for the unprofitable arts department that is cut (or the social work department, in the case of my university).  They will think nothing of cutting unpopular subjects that do not attract sufficient students with their juicy loan checks.  They, like the bankers and the politicians, will bow before the gods of the market in supplication — caring nothing for the students who pay their salaries, and the lecturers, professors and researchers that bring in grants, publish respected papers, and attract well-moneyed students, all while working for peanuts with no retirement plan to speak of.

I moved to Britain some years ago to get my PhD, feeling a certain excitement to be entering a society where education was actually viewed as a public good.  Now, less than a decade later, British higher education stands in the balance.  I like to think that most Britons feel a justifiable pride in the educational achievements of their forebears, and yet here we are in the midst of a government that sees fit to ensure that this venerable education system will be changed forever — and for the worse.  Now, do we sit calmly and suffer in silence — or will we stand up?

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