Saturday, June 11, 2011

Jon's Third Guest Post

(Editor's note: I asked Jon to write a response to either David Brooks' New York Times piece "It's Not About You" or to the controversy about the recently announced New College of the Humanities.  [See the Guardian for a leftist slant on the latter and the Telegraph for a right-leaning opinion.]  Please do feel free to comment on this post with your views; I might even write my own take on the situation!)

Every now and again, Betsy sees something she finds interesting and asks me to write a commentary on it; today, though, I have a choice. I can voice an opinion about how well students are prepared for university in reaction to David Brooks’ rather nihilistic article in the New York Times basically telling graduating students that they’re screwed because they’ve been taught to ‘follow their dreams’ rather than just knuckle down and fit in like a good unquestioning citizen, which is why they’re going to struggle in today’s hideous jobs market. (Funnily enough, there little mention of the disastrous fiscal policies that have left west’s economy in tatters as a contributing factor to youth unemployment, but I guess that didn’t fit in with the journalist’s particular political point of view- nope, it’s all because those pampered students have the wrong attitude, apparently. Ho hum.)

The other thing I could talk about is the new totally private university, the ‘New College for the Humanities,’ being set up by philosopher A.C Grayling and other illustrious bigwigs such as Richard Dawkins. It offers intensive one-to-one tuition, and dubiously claims to offer ‘the finest minds available’ as teachers. And so it should, given that they’re going to charge £18k per year to give the offspring of the rich and the powerful the privilege of hearing an egotistical collection of pseudo-academics explain why they’re better than the students. As you can see here and here, it’s already created a bit of a shitstorm - Oxford is dead against it, and someone actually let off a flare in a meeting on the topic yesterday. Yikes.

There was quite a lot of anger in my somewhat left-leaning office about this today, but luckily the only thing that did flare was people’s tempers (geddit?). If you’re an American reading this you might be thinking, "What’s the big deal?  It’s only one private college," but the idea taking root right now is that the UK is on a slippery slope to a system that charges students a similar amount to what they pay in the US as more private institutions end up choking the state ones and deprive lower income families a shot at a decent education. Now that is serious, and for many the idea that money should be an impediment to education is abhorrent. I, and most of my office I guess, happen to be among them.

However, I’m actually not particularly worried about it, because if it does scare some of our established institutions into becoming more competitive then so much the better. This new university has a right to exist, and people should be able to choose attandance as an option if they really want intensive teaching (even if it is from people I can’t stand). Education does cost money and it has to come from somewhere. That’s a fact, and I am unfashionable in believing that it is unfair to demand the public to subside students to a greater extent than they already do. People hark back to the days of extensive grants with rose-tinted nostalgia, when most people went through university for free, but what they’re really remembering is a time when working class people, who were not encouraged to attend university in those dark ages, were paying taxes that went towards giving the middle classes a free run. Those graduates then went on to make much more in earnings because of their complimentary degree, leading to a systematic cycle of exclusion - not exactly the level playing field some politicians have made that time out to be. 

Those days are long gone and I am up to my eyeballs in student debt, but I don’t resent that. Like most, I did my degree (in Engligh literature) not because of its benefit to society but because it was what I wanted to do; I would feel deeply selfish about asking others to cough up more than they already do to get me through it. Eventually, I’ll pay it off, and that will be because my degree has helped me get a job that enables me to achieve a decent income. The rich kids going to this new place will never need to worry about any of that, but if they had gone to a state institution they would end up being subsidised by a country that can’t really afford to foot the bill any longer.

As far as the risk of having the best lecturers lured away - again, I’m not worried. The ‘New College’ has secured its teachers because it’s offering more money, yet in my experience the best academics are never the ones who follow the money (in the UK, at least) - they’re not the ones on  TV chasing ratings, they’re the dedicated individuals interested in teaching the best minds in the country. Evidence of this was shown when the academics of Oxford overwhelmingly passed a motion of ‘no confidence’ in the government’s plan to increase tuition fees to £9,000 in state universities. That plan would have netted them higher salaries and more money for Oxford, but yet they still opposed it. Why? Because they don’t want the private system and the wealth-based exclusivity it brings. And that’s why the New College, in my opinion, will remain an isolated anomaly, drawing in the rich so that we don’t have to pay for them, whilst those with merit rather than wealth can receive the better degree.


  1. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I'm an Australian, moving to the UK Soon. Thanks for this commentary, it helps understand the situation more, I've been watching the news on this with interest.

    Australia was the same "back in the day" with free university, now it costs money but you pay the government back, it's called HECS. There aren't many "private" universities in Australia like America instead most uni's offer HECS and private places.

    The issue we're facing in Australia is that schools are now offering more places for full fee paying students then HECS students and it's easier now for the private paying students to get places with their entrance requirement scores being lowered and because of the demand for HECS places you need crazy high scores for the basic of degrees. Many people feel that the gap is widening between the lower income families and richer private and international students.

  2. Interesting. I have to admit to being one of those Americans that has the initial reaction of "what's the big deal?" I've found it interesting that in America I am most certainly a democrat, but here in the UK I find that my "liberal" ideals are not always as far left as they felt (especially in Texas!) I agree that everyone should be able to access higher education, but there is a sense of entitlement that is uncomfortably pervasive- from this student issue to the benefit culture.
    I went to a private college in America. There were people who came from wealthy families, but there were also people who had worked hard to achieve grades and SAT scores that got them financial aid. I agree that anyone that wants to have an education should be able to find a way to get it. I also think that people should have to work to get what they want- it shouldn't just be handed to them because they asked for it.
    As for this new college- degrees have reputations. Just as Oxford is a more prestigious degree than Manchester Metropolitan University- a degree from a school like this will be known for what it is likely to become. Kids who weren't smart enough to get into Oxbridge so mummy and daddy bought their place at it.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. As more information emerges about all of this, I have to admit that I fund myself more and more conflicted. My grandmother has been sending me interesting articles on this, though, and I'll post those tomorrow. Thanks for responding!

  4. Jon, you are so young and so naive, so overprivileged and so clueless: will you make it to forty with such lofty opinions, I wonder? The answer is assuredly no.

    That said, your overprivileges are roughly ten to twenty years behind those of wealthy Americans - just like every other capitalist trend in the UK has always been. Wonder when Brits first started talking about the notorious 'ten years behind America' lag, anyway...


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