I am perpetually suspicious of all economic arguments in favour of whatever. The trouble about economics is that everything you say must be qualified with 'all other things being equal', a condition which rarely, if ever, can be assured beyond the short term. So I cannot help but be suspicious about all the economic arguments that Lord Browne has advanced in favour of the government's lifting the cap on tuition fees for students at UK universities. Indeed, I'm most suspicious about this remark reported by The Guardian this morning:
These reforms will put students in the driving seat of a revolutionary new system. Under these plans universities can start to vary what they charge but it will be up to students whether they choose the university. The money will follow the student ,who will follow the quality. The student is no longer taken for granted; the student is in charge.
One could say the same of a mass-system of buying snake oil. I wonder if before the peerage Lord Browne got experience selling knocked-off knives and forks on a popular market (I mean other than the oil market while he was in charge of BP!). I should of course say 'darn the maarket'
Seriously, I haven't the foggiest whether higher student fees are good or not from an economic point of view. My views on the matter, however, are briefly stated. I find there is everything wrong with making students feel they are the customers and the universities are the vendors. In fact, they already have that feeling because they are acculturated within a highly developed consumerist society. For example, I was eyed suspiciously by new students yesterday as I announced in my draconian manner - hmmm, I recently failed to be hired elsewhere because of my 'draconian manner' - that what we cover in class should not define the limits of what they learn. Yes, I looked into their eyes and saw in some the alarm of customers who, having just shelled out £3500, found they had not bought their degree certificate, or that the rules of purchase did not apply.
But there is another issue here and it is this: the more debt you are in, the more you are beholden to this consumerist culture. The more you have a stake in this tottering tower of interdependent debt, the more your interests lie in propping it up. I'm not underestimating here the power and the potential of debt. Nor am I denying that I have debts of my own! I'm simply questioning the probity of the conditions which its preponderance creates.
At the heart of both my worries, however, is that everything which ties liberal education up to a utilitarian agenda militates against its essential nature. If you want a highly trained, modern citizenry who are all techno-wizards and accomplished consumers, then listen to Lord Browne. If, on the other hand, you want free men - I mean 'free men' in the sense of men made free in themselves by some learning and virtue - then, as the Irish farmer says to the tourist lost in Donegal, 'If I were you, I wouldn't start from here in the first place...'