Friday, November 11, 2011

Students Protest: Bourgeoisie Of The World Unite!

A graduate can expect to earn on average £125,000 more in a lifetime than someone without a degree. For a student of medicine that figure is over £400,000. Put another way, a person entering the workforce at 18 can expect to earn 27.4% less for an extra hour worked than a graduate can.

On Wednesday I watched the battalion of 3000 or so student protesters march the Strand, all armed to the teeth with festival wristbands and threatening rhetoric. They were flanked on all sides by police helicopters and cavalry, at whom they threw words of apocalyptic warning rather than the customary glass bottles. Amongst the well-meaning quixotic freshmen and serial ‘anarchists’ (who confusingly seem to want bigger government) I spied members of that most prolific militant special interest group – UKUncut. Fancying themselves as vigilant X-Men of the working class, they are in fact a violently oppressive gang, who gleefully flout democracy in favour of what they feel is right ‘in their hearts’.

The event was organised by the ‘National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’ (NCAFC) who want (amongst their many impracticable demands) higher education to be free for all. Their contention is that it is a human right and consequently immoral to put a price on such a thing. They say the government has ‘failed on every level to understand the intrinsic value of higher education to society as a whole’ and that any form of market association can only lead to ‘low quality courses at bloated prices’. Within the same paragraph they claim the proposals imply a ‘one size fits all mentality’ but also that they are ‘not uniform across the disciplines'… disproportionately affecting ‘the London School of Economics for example, that consistently produces world class graduates’. How to oppose such wisdom…

Why should something that so clearly provides such enormous individual returns be free? We can agree that higher education is a right. But I’m sure we can also agree that food is a right, yet we see few calls for the abolition of its competitive supply.  We can also agree that there exist wider ‘external’ benefits to society, not taken into account by the individuals educated. But then we’re just arguing about the right numbers, the correct balance between individual and societal contribution, not the principle. Until recently 1/3 of the total cost was borne by the student, the rest by taxpayers. It would be hard to conjure a more regressive policy than the income tax funded ‘free’ university education the NCAFC demand. For a start many more non-graduates than graduates contribute to income tax revenues (presently only around 18% of the population have degrees), and we’ve established you’re more likely to be poor without a degree. Secondly it is ‘horizontally inequitable’: if a graduate earns enough to pay £20,000 more in income tax (than he otherwise would) and £5,000 of that contributes to university costs (so £15,000 go to public services everyone benefits from), a non-graduate also paying £20,000 in tax is paying significantly more for the same public services the graduate enjoys

The impossibly high cost of acquiring the information required to make appropriate health care decisions and the sudden unexpected nature of these needs make it a good candidate for public provision. Equally a child is likely to be ill-equipped with the necessaries to make good education decisions. This is not so with university students.
Provided applicants are fully informed, it IS fair that graduates pay for most of the costs of their education when they end up earning the money to do so. Why should a taxpaying policeman be subject to such exorbitance for our extraordinary privilege?


  1. I certainly cannot disagree with everything you have written here as you make some interesting points, especially in regards to the parallel you draw with food.

    However, I must pull you up on a few points which boarder on Daily Mail style hyperbole.

    1. Saying that UKUncut 'flout democracy' is ridiculous. Democracy is far more than simply putting an X in a box every five years and leaving it at that. Democracy is an organic, living, breathing system that has numerous aspects, one of which is the right to protest. Secondly, you seem to have totally missed the point of the whole organisation. Many see the current governments mandate as totally insufficient to warrant such a dramatic reforming administration. The radical, ideological move away from a mixed economy which was started by Mrs T and admittedly carried on by Labour, has been put into overdrive. The Education White Paper is just one example. We are witnessing the wholesale retreat from the post war concusses model without it having been in any manifesto for which we could have voted. Hence, people sympathise with UKUncut and the whole anti-cuts movement because they feel there has been a failure of democracy. The way in which our children will be educated has been dramatically altered without a legitimate public mandate to do so. UKUncut (which, by the way I am not the biggest fan of) are not 'flouting' democracy as you so incorrectly state but are actually actively involved in its defence.

    2. You wrongly focus solely on the issue of fees when the march was called against the Education White Paper. The 'alternative White Paper' put forward by hundreds of leading academics puts forward the case far more convincing than I will be able to here. However, in addition; Only this morning we have seen Professors resigning from Royal Holloway in protest against the major cuts planned for the Classics department. The new model of education proposed negates the centuries old tradition of valuing the pursuit of knowledge itself and attempts to value a courses use by measuring its direct empirical value for the economy. Education will rapidly shift from an exercise that understands the value of knowledge for the sake of knowledge into little more than a factory line for the economy.

    3. Finally and most unacceptable for a supposed economist is the way in which you have completely ignored the opposing economic argument. The alternative white paper argues convincingly that new tuition fee system will in reality cost more for the tax payer as people will be unable to pay back the loan, leaving the government to pick up the deficit.

    If this proves true then this government has introduced a radical yet un-thought-out policy without a sufficient mandate. Even worse they will be replacing a system which is currently valued among the top 2 University systems in the world (based on number of unis in top 200) with little more than a production line for industry and a society that no longer values the pursuit of knowledge unless it can be quantified in pounds.

  2. Briefly;

    1) You and I were both there for the 'you have no right to speak' moment. That along with their many other aggressive efforts at getting their voice heard (rather than saying something worth hearing) counts as 'flouting' democracy.

    2) Just because (some) academics are against it does not mean its wrong. Many for for it (especially economists who's business it is to know these things) and many professors are clearly suffering from a conflict of interests: their performance is going to be far more closely monitored in the name of informing prospective students' decisions.
    3) The argument is about the principle not the governments specific policy, which wasn't mentioned once.