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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

More on Universities: Fees and Cost

Within the past 24 hours, Labour has 'upped the ante' by declaring that their cessation of university tuition fees would apply to existing students and new entrants from the start of the next academic year. The Tories' riposte, that the Labour scheme is 'uncosted' has absolutely no merit, because it is quite clear that the prime minister and her 'scullery cabinet' have no idea of the costs of any version of their confused 'policy' on social care, either: and it is agonisingly obvious that the Tories do not want to know how much a revitalised National Health service would cost.

I refer to a 'scullery cabinet', rather than a 'kitchen cabinet', because it is obvious that the Prime Minister's close claque of chosen minions should not allowed near hot pans or ovens. Once a party has been unsettled as much as the Tories have been by the thought of loosing the 'grey vote', there is no chance for them to recover poise and confidence in a couple of weeks: especially if the Prime Minister doggedly sticks to her decision that some pensioner benefits will become means tested. Meanwhile, thousands - perhaps millions - of pensioners have for the first time considered not voting Conservative: and once the thought creeps into their minds it will recur. I know nobody who thinks that the IRA-supporting Corbyn is fit to be the Prime Minister: but millions now want his party to drive the government to a narrow majority in the next House of Commons. A mass student
vote for Labour, plus a couple of million hesitant pensioners, could achieve that target.

The question that I was considering yesterday was that of what is the use of a higher education system, and how much should such a system cost when the price is set alongside the demands of the Health Service, Defence, Social Services, support for rural communities, schools, lifelong learning and housing? Several days ago, I referred to Cardinal Newman's nineteenth-century book on The Idea of the University in which he advanced the totally non-utilitarian view that the purpose of higher education was simply and solely the development of the intellectual and moral capabilities of the individual scholar. In Newman's day, there was no state funding of the few universities that existed: he was himself involved in developing an essentially catholic university College in Ireland, and capitalists in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool were funding higher colleges to teach the skills that local businesses needed in their future employees.

The First World War revealed that Germany was ahead of Britain in many areas of production: and in some fields - such as optical glass for telescopes, binoculars and periscopes [used both in the trenches and in submarines] - the UK had no facilities comparable with the Germans'. The exigencies of war demanded that those gaps had to be closed, regardless of cost: and for more than half a century thereafter the Department of Glass Technology in Sheffield University, with the associated British Glass Industry Research Association, was fostered by the state to provide a national focus for developing the higher technologies in glass and related materials.

Throughout the twentieth century the utilitarian approach to funding universities was constantly challenged by graduates in the liberal subjects - history, classics, modern languages, music and philosophy - that had been funded by benefactors [ancient and modern] in the older universities, who now argued that to be 'civilised' any modern university had to offer those 'soft' subjects alongside science and technology. Once that became part of the received wisdom, applications from students to study the arts and 'social sciences' swamped science applications. The benefits for an individual holding an indifferent degree in arts or social sciences are exiguous: recent research shows that such graduates do not command higher salaries - or even more comfortable jobs - than people who have not been to university. It has also been revealed that mathematics graduates who do [idealistically] take up schoolteaching in the hope of raising the national skills base in science and engineering resign after a very short period, as in most schools the pupils have no wish to learn 'difficult' subjects and disrupt the lessons.

Mrs May would not do it, but the country deserves a full and fearless assessment of what the nation needs in terms of higher education. The size of such a system should be postulated, the cost estimated, and the optimum means of paying for it identified. During World War II Sir William Beveridge and a small team devised a model for the 'welfare state'; and the Minister for Education, R A Butler, himself co-ordinated the workstreams that led to the definitive 1944 Education Act. In the absence of such seminal template models, policy is lost in a drift that the economy can no longer support.

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