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Thursday, December 30, 2010

In Defence of the Academy

Given that we are no longer to spend public money on higher education the new deal for students is progressive and better than their current financial arrangements - but goodness that misses the point! The thing that we all seem to have forgotten is that there is no given and that the privatisation of higher education is not the only way forward. I've seen to much energy over the last few weeks spent debating the deal, and not enough considering the principle. I think we have forgotten something as a country - the Academy needs defending.

It starts with money. Education should not be about money, but one of the loudest arguments about moving from public to personal financing of education is that graduates earn more money because of their degrees and should therefore pay for them.

But this is not true - it may seem odd, but this is a case of mistaken cause and effect. Let us imagine a company that took the top performing 40% of its workforce and gave them a special training day. Then imagine that the company turned around and said that the employees needed to pay for the day, because they were the ones earning the most money. That's what we're doing to students. Putting the top 40% of school performers through the HE system and then making them pay for being the top 40% earners on the other side. Many of these students would have earned equally impressive salaries working their way up through a company, and in fact some of them may have taken a financial hit from taking their degree (for example, would be small business owners who become nurses).

Of course a degree confers advantages, and for some people that will mean more money, but this is not universally true. A degree may open up a specialist career, it may be personally fulfilling, it may even make you a better person - but it will not necessarily make you money (especially when considered over a lifetime of earning - three of four years of zero income is a lot to overcome).

Even if it does, even if - as a direct result of your education - you earn more money than you would have without it, the government gets it back through taxing that increased earnings. There simply is not a financial case to be made.

But hang on - if a degree is not linked to earnings - then why are we told that its so important that people go to University and get a degree, what about this whole 'knowledge economy' thing?

Well Higher Education is linked to wealth, just not at the personal level. The whole society benefits from HE, your degree doesn't make you money, it makes the country money. Stepping back from the individual you can see that having highly educated people in society creates new opportunities - it builds whole new sectors. While an individual may become a big fish without their own degree, a HE system creates the seas in which they can swim. I am not a mechanical engineer but I benefit from the tax paid by large engineering firms such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, and the value to the country extends beyond taxation - I didn't study medicine but I have benefited on countless occasions from others who have, I am not a lawyer, but law graduates have helped create a stable system in which I can live.

On balance when you get a degree it is the country that benefits financially rather than you.

A society that has abandoned Higher Education has abandoned any aspirations of real value.

But I started by saying that education should not be about money. Steven Schwartz - writing in the THE - makes a nice point about the tension in HE between short term and long term goals (training for a job vs. an education for life). Training is all about setting yourself up for a career but education is something else, education is about enriching life (your own and others) through awareness and understanding. To think that education is an end goal is hubris, it is a process, and the Academy is a community of learners. That is why research and teaching go so naturally together - the Professors are learning too.

A strong Academy adds vibrancy and momentum to our society as well as our economy. It brings richness to all areas of public life and reminds us that as a civilisation we are still learning together. It gives us public ownership of knowledge and ideas, and provides intellectual analysis that holds the powerful to account. At best the Academy is not only a cornerstone of society, but it is a key way to improve that society and to expand it's horizons. A society that has abandoned Higher Education has abandoned any aspirations of real value.

Britain is very lucky to have a world class Higher Education System. We are second only to the US, a country five times our size, in the number of our Universities in the world top 200. Our HE system adds incalculable value to our country and our culture.

So as we continue to debate the rights and wrongs of tuition fees, graduation taxes and student dissent, let us bear in mind that while in the short term it may be money that excites, frightens or motivates us, in the longer term our happiness and security as a country depend on deeper and more meaningful qualities.

I am deeply disappointed with those representatives that voted to privatise education under cover of cost cutting, with no real mandate from the people, and no proper discussion of the consequences.

Shame on you. You have made our country a poorer place.