TThe government is reportedly considering reducing university tuition fees in England from £ 9,250 to £ 8,500. The reason? No concern for the fate of students or young graduates in difficulty. It would be unusual to say the least. No, he is interested in cutting them because he wants to save money.
At first glance, it seems strange. How can the reduction in fees, paid by students at universities, be a means of reducing government spending? The answer deserves to be specified, because it touches on a persistent myth concerning the English system of financing of the universities. Most people assume that charging students for their education should save public money. The introduction and subsequent increase in tuition fees has been streamlined using the language of economic ‘sustainability’ and ‘equity’: why should ordinary taxpayers bear the cost of an education that graduates derive the main benefit?
But, as with austerity policy in general, this rationale was wrong. The influential and seemingly progressive call for “fairness” fails in part because the indebtedness of a generation of students has not substantially reduced the cost of higher education to the taxpayer. Just as the savings from the coalition government’s benefit cuts were offset by the amount paid to private contractors to carry out the infamous ‘fitness for work’ assessments, it was already clear in 2014 that the high university fee scheme was being paid. likely to be expensive. the government more than it saved, mainly because of the large and growing proportion of graduates unable to repay their debts.
This brings us to the seemingly paradoxical situation in which lowering tuition fees can be seen as a cost-cutting measure: less money loaned and never repaid. Needless to say, the government is not proposing to replace lost university revenue with public funds.
This explains the Conservatives’ sudden interest in lowering fees. But this raises a bigger question about austerity: if it doesn’t save public money, why do it? It’s not just incompetence, although there is a lot of it around. It is, as it has become customary to stress, ideological: a political choice linked to a particular and neoliberal vision of society and of the individual. This explanation is not, however, in contradiction with a more material one. It’s tempting to think that when governments’ ideological commitments get them to do things in the name of the economy that end up costing more than they save, they are doing something irrational or self-destructive.
But what is doomed to fail from an “economy” or “public money” perspective can be very good for the people who really matter: the individuals and businesses who profit from dismantling public assets and of their submission to a market logic. These are pies that shelter the finger of many politicians. Who cares about the state of public finances when your investments are doing well and a life after lucrative politics is just a revolving door?
The reforms that introduced tuition fees never focused solely on fees, but on a larger project of commodification. As with other besieged public services such as health, this project aims to expand private sector participation while encouraging public agencies to behave more like private businesses. The purpose of replacing central funding with tuition fees was to force universities to compete for income (undergraduates), which supporters of the fee regime said would “raise the standards.”
The architects of the current system have always predicted that some institutions would go bankrupt (timidly called “market exit”), and that new private “providers” would take their place. Despite various attempts to speed up this process, private and for-profit universities have yet to emerge on a significant scale; but as with the NHS, the role of the private sector in the “delivery” of services within theoretically public institutions has broadened considerably.
Within a few years, commodification has transformed higher education to a degree difficult to appreciate from the outside. Competition for tuition income has subordinated university life to a relentless campaign to recruit students. Ever-increasing resources are being invested in vanity creation projects and branding initiatives, while support services are cut or outsourced. The university workforce is increasingly placed on casual contracts, with departments hiring and firing according to the latest projections of student numbers.
While a handful of senior executives and professors earn six-figure salaries, most staff have seen their salaries drop 20% in real terms since 2009, as their workloads have increased. The students, living under mountains of debt, seize a thin consumer power as the only one available and wield it against their teachers. In a sector often considered – and not without reason – as relatively cushy, the human cost is considerable. Stress and mental illness are common among students and staff (a recent report found that the mental well-being of higher education workers was significantly lower than that of the general population, with more than half having signs of depression).
Simply reducing the fee level won’t solve any of this, as it leaves the underlying system intact – as expected. This will not necessarily produce any financial benefit for the students, many of whom will end up paying the same amount out of a reduced notional total (paying £ 30,000 on a debt of £ 50,000, for example, is no different than paying £ 30,000. of £ 45,000). But this will squeeze the universities, which will recoup the lost income as best they can, most likely through increases in the already exorbitant rents for student housing.
So here’s yet another paradox: high tuition fees are the root of everything that goes wrong with universities; however reducing them, without changing the fundamentals of the current system, will not help. Meanwhile, the only thing that would have aid – a reversal of commodification and a return to higher education as a free public good – seems further away than ever.
While there isn’t much to celebrate from the prospect of lower fees, some of the government’s other higher education cost reduction ideas are worse. A less eye-catching measure currently being considered is to lower the threshold at which graduates start repaying their loans from around £ 27,000 to £ 23,000 (student loan terms can be changed retrospectively whenever the government sees fit, a scenario that Martin Lewis, founder of Money Saving Expert, called a “violation of natural justice”). Like the recent national insurance hike and the end of the £ 20 “hike” in universal credit, this is a quietly brutal policy that will hit the people for whom every penny and every penny. book counts, for whom every little gesture hurts.