Education is a social good, not a commodity

On 7 December, former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby wrote in The Guardian that Ed Miliband was wrong to oppose the government’s proposals to treble tuition fees. Here, BERNARD HUGHES says his argument is based on a view of education as a commodity not a social good.

Peter Wilby’s argument has two main problems. It only makes sense if you regard education as a commodity benefiting the individual rather than as a social good. He makes no assessment of the benefits to society of a well-educated population but just looks as the effects on individuals.

And it creates a false syllogism: access to higher education has increased in recent years; we have had student fees in recent years; so more fees will increase access even more.

Beyond that, let’s take a couple of his least sensible assertions:

“The post-1960s expansion of higher education benefited the less intellectually gifted middle class children and, more laudably, middle class girls. During those years the chances of a middle class child getting to university rose faster than those of a working class child.”

Of course it did, just as the creation of grammar schools benefited a small number of working-class children (my dad was one of them). But mostly it extended free high-quality secondary education to larger (though still selected) parts of the sociological middle class. The response was the creation of comprehensive schools that tried to extend the privilege to all (with varied results).

But to argue (in his next sentence) that “the gap between the social classes increased” as a result of greater access to higher education is just daft. It depends where you draw your boundaries. It certainly “narrowed” the boundaries between those who had normally enjoyed higher education and those who were narrowly excluded. His figures in the next paragraph are dependent on the fact that deprived neighbourhoods were starting from a low base. They say nothing about the actual numbers of students who benefited.

“To describe students as facing a lifelong ‘burden’ of ‘crippling’ debt is simply bizarre, particularly for a Labour leader who wants to replace the debt with a graduate tax that the rich would avoid as smartly as they avoid all other taxes.”

This comes from a man who appears to be comfortable with his financial position and doesn’t consider the viewpoint of those who aren’t. Debt is more frightening to poorer people than to richer people, for obvious reasons. The prospect of a hypothetical debt in his youth wouldn’t be frightening to Wilby as he now knows he would easily have been able to pay it off. But he can’t transpose his experience onto an 18 year-old from a family in a difficult financial position now.

And as for the arguments that the rich would avoid a graduate tax “as smartly as they avoid all other taxes” – then let’s abandon all other progressive taxes, shall we, as we know the rich will avoid them? This is just lazy stuff. (I don’t actually agree with a graduate tax: I’d just increase taxes on high earners more generally – but that’s another story.)

Most remarkable, and something that could only come from a man convinced of his own arguments, is this:

“Most bizarre of all is the argument that, because graduates of earlier generations benefited from free university education, they should not deny it to others. Should those who went to grammar school never argue for comprehensives, and those who inherited wealth never support higher estate duties? Should those who benefited from slavery not have supported abolition?”

No, graduates who benefited from free education enjoyed excellent opportunities because the authorities saw social worth in this. His argument adds up to saying that those who benefited from (free) grammar schools should have argued that comprehensives would be a good idea as long as we had spent the 1970s abolishing free education and creating fee-paying comprehensives only.

And without wishing to get all Marxist about it, the idea that the relationship between the beneficiaries of slavery and freed slaves can be equated to the relationship between people of different social backgrounds in Britain who might or might not aspire to higher education is utterly lacking in terms of class politics, and breathtakingly absent of any moral concept of slavery.

The last three paragraphs, where he defends the EMA, are the best in the article. But even here, Wilby creates a false dichotomy. He suggests that the campaign against fees somehow harms a campaign against the abolition of EMA. But why not campaign against both, as they serve similar social ends?

And the argument about the deficit is weak here – £3 billion is being cut from university tuition; next month, banks will pay out £7bn in bonuses to their own staff. This is occurring in a semi-nationalised, government-backed industry. It is largely public money. If you want to stop subsidies to the rich, why not start here, rather than raising student fees?

Peter Wilby’s article can be read here: