Arguing the higher education case
As the argument around tuition fees and higher education funding has got hotter over recent weeks, it has not necessarily become more sophisticated. I fear there is a feeling right now in some circles that the volume of the shouting is more important than the compelling nature of the case being made. As readers of this blog know, I do not believe that ‘free’ higher education is feasible any longer, but I accept readily enough that a good case can be made for it, when properly advanced. All too often however the arguments put forward are rather weak.
An example of this is an article published this week in Times Higher Education. The piece in question was written by a journalism lecturer, Kate Smith of Edinburgh Napier University. It considers the position of Scotland in the context of the current debate there about higher education funding, and it ends with what the author probably considered a rather pleasing flourish, as follows:
‘The wealth of a country is not measured by the gold held in reserve, its strength not by its weapons of mass destruction. Richness and enlightenment comes from the education and character of a people. Universal access to university education is imperative to avoid what Scrooge called “the shadows of what may be”. The Scots are showing this is not just a fairy tale; they are leading the way.’
In fact, there is no logical connection between the somewhat over-the-top rhetoric of the first two sentences and the conclusion that then follows. Nobody whom I have heard in this debate would argue against the value of education. But it does not follow in any way that higher education as a universal benefit is more effective, notwithstanding the out-of-context misquoting of Dickens. A case can be made for universal free access, but it needs to be explained, not just asserted.
Universal benefits provide effective coverage but are very expensive, and the cost is aggravated by the fact that money will be directed at least in part to those who do not need it, so that those who do need it may end up getting less than they should. When in addition the state has declining resources this impact is aggravated.
As a society, we are now at a phase of development where we are going to have to make some difficult choices about higher education. Part of this will be about deciding how important we think it is to have a system that is demonstrably excellent and of a quality that will compete with the best elsewhere. Part of it will be about deciding whether free access for the wealthy is of itself an important principle that will trump all other considerations. Or, if we feel that universality is inviolable, it will be about deciding how we can raise the resources.
I accept that a perfectly good argument can be made for universally free access to higher education. But it is not the case that this is an easy argument or that it could be applied without difficulty. In order for it to be persuasive, those advancing it have to be much more articulate in recognising the problems and suggesting solutions. Writing about a return to Dickensian conditions, as Kate Smith does in the Times Higher article, is simply silly and gets the debate nowhere.
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