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Thursday, 11 May 2017

University Free For All?

The leaked Labour Party Manifesto that the BBC [among others] is brandishing this morning aims clearly at 'old Labour' voters and at first-time voters, in particular.

The promise to abolish tuition fees in UK higher education in England will be hugely popular with students; and also with the millions of working people who are struggling to cope with their own student debt repayments and would love to avoid their children becoming trapped in the same debt tangle in their adult years.

However, there are many consequential issues that need to be considered. The question of how 'free' higher education would be funded needs realistic answers, rather than platitudes. This immediately knocks-on to the question of "how much higher education should be funded by taxpayers?" To which a respondent must ask further questions, of which the first and most fundamental is that which was addressed by Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century; since when, the opposite of his argument has been the basis on which governments have funded universities. Newman argued unequivocally that the purpose of universities is, and should only be, the humane education of the individual: no utilitarian objective should be allowed to intrude into the process of self-fulfillment.

Meanwhile, in the last third of the nineteenth century, the masters of industry and commerce in Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol were collecting funds from each other to establish university colleges that would teach the young men of the area [by full- and part-time study] the essentials of textile technology, metallurgy, engineering and other applied sciences; with the necessary underpinning of mathematics, physics and chemistry. Into the twentieth century, especially in the light of deficiencies in British technological capability revealed by the First World War [which exposed areas of shameful technical dependence on imports from Germany], government funding for universities - especially in applied sciences - was increased. But technology is hard to learn, and has never had the high prestige that the literate classes have given to music and literature. History is popular relaxation reading: higher mathematics has a very small appeal to the mass market. So it has proved with student preferences: especially in the 'Robbins expansion' of the higher education system in the nineteen sixties [which saw the doubling of the older civic universities, and the establishment of several completely new universities] the arts were allowed to take in many more students, while the science capability of the universities was expanded beyond the level that could be filled by capable and willing UK students. Hence by the nineteen eighties, when the Thatcher governments welcomed university expansion to absorb otherwise-unemployed twenty-year-olds, a pattern was set whereby the arts, social studies and 'media' grew in response to demand; and science labs were stripped out to make more lecture space that could be crammed with people doing 'useless' degrees.

Although teaching media studies requires only a fraction of the unit cost of teaching mechanical engineering [which involves high expenditure on machinery, workshop space, materials, technical support etc], the aggregate cost of allowing hundreds of thousands of people to undertake materially non-productive courses every year was seen as excessive: so tuition fees were brought in; and the 'arts side'of institutions, at least, became virtually self-funding. The residual capacity for teaching and research in applied science was increasingly filled by overseas students, who took their knowledge back to support competition with British industry, while the UK schools system encouraged their pupils to take the cheaper and more popular arts options in which nice children from nice homes got goods grades and so got their schools good gradings. The consequential mega-disaster for the British economy needs no elucidation in this blog today; though it is a subject that must recur frequently in future.

Having opened up the subject, Mr Corbyn and his little friends need to explain how - and why - the universities should be funded. Is there any national interest in maintaining over a hundred and thirty such institutions, many of which have no functioning applied science capabilities? Are the taxpayers really willing to fund a million Newmans a year? Now that the issue has been raised, it needs to be addressed clearly and in full.

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