The educational marketplace

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As a Social Anthropology student, you can probably guess I’m not in this degree for the money. I came to university for the allure of intellectual enrichment – a craving that survived thirteen years in a Scottish state school and is currently being satisfied by a monumental amount of coursework.

Since starting university, the crap has hit the higher education fan. Tuition fees in England are set at a maximum of £9000, and it’s becoming clear that whether they aspire to enter the golden gates of institutions such as Cambridge, or the more modest cast-iron ones of the University of East London, incoming undergraduates will have to pay. A lot.

But this is by no means the worst threat that is facing higher education in the UK. Not by a long shot. The real threat comes from growing attitudes to universities and degree-level qualifications that have given rise to the tuition fee hike.

The original thinking behind the new fee system was that students would get better value for their money. Only the really good universities would charge the full amount, with the majority of institutions charging a comparatively modest fee. Universities also have the option of charging different prices for different courses, meaning that those subjects that are in high demand will potentially be more expensive than the least popular ones.

This transforms higher education into a cold, unforgiving marketplace governed by the rules of supply and demand. The worthiness of a degree is measured purely in terms of neo-liberal notions of “market value”. If your passion isn’t fashionable enough, it isn’t worth the money.

Be under no illusion, though; this does not mean that people are actually getting what they pay for. The likelihood is that universities will offset the loss of funding in the arts and humanities with fees from other courses. Indeed, even the lowliest of ex-polytechnics are charging close to the highest possible fee across the board. So much for competition.

And then come the claims from the right that even this system is not good enough. We should remove the cap on fees altogether, and allow universities to charge as much as they like in a US-style privatised system. The government should allocate extra university places to those courses with the highest “graduate repayment” rates, ensuring not only value for money for students but for the state as well.

This last suggestion assumes that the only degree that is worth having is one that will end in high wages – an idea that seems to be reinforced every time the issue of education is raised in Westminster.

Even the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is being scrapped due to supposed wastage in the system. The EMA was introduced to provide extra financial support to young people wishing to continue in education after the age of sixteen.

However, it seems too many people who receive the EMA would continue in education without such a financial incentive. The thousands of young people who genuinely benefit from the scheme are apparently not enough to prove its worth. The EMA is to become yet another victim of the cuts, and we are once again asked to judge education policy on the basis of “value for money”.

I am tired of my degree being boiled down to a question of potential earning capacity. When it comes to education, “value” is not quantitative. It cannot be measured in terms of wage-labour.

Imagine a world in which every non-lucrative subject were tossed to the curb; a world without art or literature or philosophy; a world filled with Forensic Science or Events Management graduates, and little else.

My point here is not to belittle these degrees. All I mean is that society benefits from having a variety of perspectives, which can only come from an education system guided by a commitment to diversity and intellectual fulfilment.

It’s like that film Pleasantville – I want to live in technicolour, not black and white.

The real measure of value when it comes to education is entirely up to you. It is not for the government, or any institution, to decide how worthwhile your degree is.

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