The furore and the kerfuffle over the (hastily withdrawn) plans to let the rich buy extra university places has left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I’m opposed to the plans, nor because I’m well up for them, but rather because the tone and content of the debate has been, as seems to be the case with almost every “debate” in modern politics, grossly simplified and completely out-of-touch with reality. Let’s take a look at two reasons why it is an insult to our collective intelligence to call the party-political sniping on this issue a debate.
First up, there’s the problem that the rich can already effectively pay for extra places in universities. See, universities – as much as pseudo-academics like me would like to see them as esoteric, research driven centres of excellence (or ivory towers, in other words) – they are actually commercial enterprises. Their trade just happens to be teaching. As a result, market forces dictate what courses are available, and how many places there will be on them. As a result of this, the rich get to choose – to effectively buy – extra places at universities.
Let’s take a look at an example from my own personal experience. A couple of years ago, when I was looking to apply, Nottingham University was not offering any postgraduate (or at least MA level) course dedicated to political philosophy. So everything from the ideas of Plato through to Rawls was effectively being side-lined at the very least by the politics department. By contrast, when it came to subjects around international relations, there was no shortage of postgraduate degrees to study. IR, Global Political Economy, Security Studies, Diplomacy – you name it, if it had an international ramification to it, Nottingham Uni’s politics department were offering it. But as for us poor political philosophers? Look elsewhere.
Why did that happen? Well, the answer is simple – the university was following the money. It was effectively offering places to the rich (or at least those with the capacity to pay the hefty tuition and living costs involved in doing a postgraduate degree). There was considerable demand, particularly from international students (who pay several times more than the amounts domestic students pay) for courses around international relations and linked issues. So the university made more courses to meet that demand, and offered more places to those who could pay and meet the entry requirements.
And quite right too. To do anything else would have been stupid. The politics department – like all sensible university departments, and other (quasi-)commercial institutions – had to make a judgement call about where the revenue was going to come from. Effectively, it was offering extra places to the rich because, here in a competitive capitalist society, it was better for them to take the money themselves than let one of their competitors take it.
So let’s reconnect the debate with reality – in modern Britain, the rich (or, as I prefer, those with the ability to pay) – can already create extra university places.
Of course, the counter-argument to this is that it is unfair on those perfectly able people who cannot afford to pay. Market forces do not allow their voices to be heard. Now, this is an intuitively plausible position when taken on face value – why should a capable student miss out when a richer student (or, more likely, a student with richer parents) can effectively buy their way into university? But then again, how do we stop this reality? Ban people from effectively buying extra places in universities? To alleviate a situation that is unfair on one person by equally restricting another person? Because this sounds a lot like the reality of the equality of outcome demanded by many socialists – not that everyone is raised to the same level, but some who are more fortunate are dragged down to the level of others who are less fortunate.
Besides, if someone wants to spend their money on a university place (and can meet the entry requirements) why the hell shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Why should universities be restricted from offering those extra places? The logic of “but it isn’t fair” is as flawed as it is facile, and is largely predicated in reality on the paradoxical assumption that we should make life fairer by spreading unfairness.
And the end result of the supposed debate about higher education this week? An embarrassing U-turn for the Tories. And that no-one is actually debating the fundamental problem of higher education in this country. It isn’t tuition fees or funding higher education, but rather that we need to return to the idea that entry into university should be based on the ability to do well there rather than a general feeling from individuals of a certain age that they have an automatic right to go.