Subjective Objectivity – The Blog of The Reasonable Man

December 8, 2010

Last word on Tuition fees etc

Filed under: Uncategorized — mikeshotgun @ 8:10 pm

Some final points, before we’re forced to rename this blog “Something about Tuition Fees or Wikileaks Probably”:

Nick links to a pretty good Crooked Timber piece. It’s a good read, and sensibly makes the case for the prosecution, something that rarely happens in this debate (one of my bugbears about the student protesters). My main quibble with it is that it’s lacking in substantial discussion about the tenability (or even desirability) of an unfettered increase in the proportion of school leavers taking part in higher education. I personally don’t think you can have the debate without questioning this point, but maybe I don’t know anything and the rise is sustainable. History suggests otherwise, but what has that ever taught us? This is actually crucial, as the author falls in the “anti-commodification” camp on education (a perfectly fine camp) rather than the “Social mobility by any means necessary” one. 

Here’s the key paragraph:

This self-persuasion may also be easier for people who have bought into a “social mobility” interpretation of what social justice requires, promoted by NuLab and now enthusiastically endorsed by Nick Clegg. If you see universities overwhelmingly through the optic of access to labour-market advantage and you think that social justice is about opportunities for this, then a scheme that loads the costs onto the direct beneficiaries can start to look plausible. In my view, a conception of social justice that confines itself to equalizing opportunties to get a better position in a system of radically unequal outcome is a radically deficient conception. A scheme where higher educatation conferred fewer differential benefits because fewer such benefits existed would be a superior one. In any case, intergenerational equity clearly also matters for justice, and the current proposals have the further downside that they shift the costs of higher education from those who themselves enjoyed free education (such as most current higher-rate income tax payers) to the coming generations.

The problem is, once the left-wing party of the country started making this argument (and it hasn’t really stopped) the author’s interpretation is essentially doomed. And while yes, intergenerational equality does matter for justice, it’s never historically been seen as one capable of trumping the other concerns. Thomas Jefferson’s views on the national debt essentially came to nothing. It was an article of faith for both Gordon Brown and George Bush that deficit spending is an appropriate way of running a country, even during prosperity. In other words, the entire consensus is against such sentiments. 

The fact is there is no generational concern for those who are to follow. If times are good, the current ruling generation will assume that will continue in perpetuity. If times are bad… “well, we got through the Great Depression/Second World War/Cold War etc – these young folks don’t know what hardship is” (actually they kind of have a point there). Any instinct to bequeath a benefit on our progeny is done on an individual basis, not a societal one, or at least rarely so. Obviously legacy achievements like the welfare state do have that effect, but they also benefit the people in the here and now. Imagine proposing expenditure on that if it would only be implemented in fifteen years time. Your government wouldn’t last half that time.

But I digress. I laud the Crooked Timber attitude, I really do. I just wish it obtained to our current state of affairs. It does not. Can it? Well, let me ask you is “vote for me and my government will attempt to overhaul our higher education system to the extent that in 10-15 years time it is once again sustainable to the extent of being free?” a particularly catchy or effective manifesto pledge? Are there any incentives for keeping such a pledge when compromise breaks down?

Nope, for you see, what the protesters ultimately want is for themselves not to have to pay. They (mostly) don’t give a shit about the next generation any more than the one before them did. They want the benefit now, or they may as well not have it at all. Don’t believe me? The most comprehensive reform to the US healthcare system in a generation is still not particularly popular, even though it benefits more than 30 million people. Why? Because the main provisions don’t come into force for another four years. In the meanwhile, political opponents are chomping at the bit to derail the plan, because when people do get the benefit, the party that gave it to them will reap the political rewards.

So do I support the fee increases? I suppose I do, given those political realities (as I see them). If they change any time soon, let me know and we can talk. I support the fee increases because no-one has shown me a just or workable alternative, given said realities. If the best the Labour benches really have to offer is the graduate tax (and I assume that it is, because why would they bring their “B” Game to a crucial battle in their war on the Liberal Democrats?) then I’m left wondering if such a thing exists. 

Of course, the root cause of injustice in this arena is that of primary and secondary education, and the disparity between those publicly and privately educated… but that’s a whole different debate.

Cross-posted at Something Quotable

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