Is University Still Worth It?

How Treating Students As Customers Turns the Idea of Meritocracy into a Joke

Recent education reforms start to make sense if you read them as an attempt to make inequality worse.

by Richard Seymour
19 August 2016, 9:20am

"Let our children grow tall," Margaret Thatcher urged, "and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so."

If there is one superstition to which the British middle class tends to cling ferociously, it is the idea of meritocracy. The idea is not just that meritocracy is a good thing. It is that Britain is, if not actually a meritocracy, at least within spitting distance of being one. And the education system, here as in the United States, is perceived as the main apparatus through which the talented and hardworking prosper. Unfortunately, some are enabled to grow taller than others.

In this context, how can it make sense to abolish grants and maintenance allowance, raise fees exorbitantly, and treat students as young consumers seeking to maximise their "human capital"? Meritocracy must at least imply a rough equality of opportunity, but the one thing we know about consumers is that they start out with very different resources.

Even allowing for the fact that "merit" is a complex idea, the government's ongoing reforms are hard to justify on a straightforwardly meritocratic basis. Already the effects of the fees system are becoming clear: it is those who already face the most obstacles to gaining a higher education who are now being disincentivised from applying to study for a degree.

The appeal of being a consumer is that the teacher appears less as a source of authority, and more as someone you can demand stuff from: "I, or my parents, are paying you to give me knowledge, so that I can get rich. So, cough up." The new Teaching Excellence Framework thus allows Universities to drive up fees based on market metrics, such as graduate employment (the reliability of the product), and student retention and satisfaction (customer feedback).

But the consumer relationship isn't as empowering as it may appear. Students who participate as citizens arguably have democratic rights in public spaces. As consumers in increasingly private, managed spaces they can lose these. The "Cops Off Campus" protests from 2013 were arguably a last-ditch struggle against this kind of disempowerment.

Teaching in the real world doesn't remotely resemble this contractual relationship, which is about far more than the communication of testable slabs of knowledge. If it did, the tendency of university managers to lean more on guilt and stress to discipline students would work. Teachers are supposed help cultivate the ability and confidence to think critically, which often has little to do with communicating facts or exam or essay techniques. This may mean, for example, frustrating some students if they want to be spoon-fed information, in order to make them see that they can do it for themselves. It may mean incurring their dissatisfaction. Not only that, but a good teacher eventually breaks a student's feeling of dependence on the teacher, and assumes a reduced role as a kind of caretaker and facilitator. How might that show up on a satisfaction survey?

Teachers must also motivate students and harness their desire, which often has little to do with the outcomes the government values. Strange to relate, students aren't always at university in order to learn. Sometimes they are there to keep mum and dad happy – or to disappoint or enrage mum and dad. Sometimes they are there to avoid the world of paid employment. Sometimes they have no idea why they are there. And those who are there to learn aren't necessarily passionate about maximising their future income streams. Teaching has to somehow take into account the full weight of the student's experience and desires, as part of what brought them into the classroom in the first place. This is hard to tabulate as a series of metrics.

However, the thrust of higher education policy since New Labour launched the fees system begins to make perfect sense if you assume, as Danny Dorling argues in Injustice, that a major function of the education system is to reproduce social inequality. Exam seasons routinely result in collective yelp of outrage from employers at how grades are becoming too good. Too many A-C grades, and too many passes, they complain, give them no basis for discerning good candidates. They need some way of creating new inequalities among the educated. And as the higher education system expands, that is arguably what these reforms are custom-designed to do.

The commodification of higher education has been gradually introduced under the rubric of expansion. The tax base, it was argued, could not cover the necessary growth of higher education to meet future economic demands, so a new system was required. On that basis, New Labour first introduced fees. The government's research had suggested that it would cost them £2 billion upfront to fund the first 20 years of expansion: a drop in the ocean of taxpayer money. However, New Labour put its faith in market-based delivery mechanisms on all fronts. And by telling universities that this was the only way in which they could fund their expansion in the future, it ensured that they would too.

Vice-Chancellors quickly became hooked on fees, because it gave them a quick source of cash and it allowed them to drive up their own salaries to private sector levels. They became part of a lobby among higher education elites supporting ever-expanding fees, with the elite universities seeking to charge the most. Governments, determined to address the skill requirements of future capitalist sectors in market-friendly terms, readily agreed. The rate of fee increase has been phenomenal, from £1,000 per year to now over £9,000 in the space of less than two decades. It's hard to see anywhere the prices rise at this rate, apart from the British property market. This in part because of the genuine expansion needs of universities, and in part because marketisation has raised overhead costs for managerial, PR and advertising departments.

This has tended to perpetuate and magnify inequalities in the higher education system. The fees system chiefly benefits those elite institutions that can attract wealthy and international students, who are prepared to pay the most. This overlaps with a damaging curricular division. While wealthier students can study what interests them, institutions serving less privileged students are likely to invest more of their resources in offering students vocational training and STEM subjects that they think will most enhance future returns in the labour market.

In reality, the increase in the supply of highly educated workers will reduce the value of that labour – more graduates will mean lower graduate wages. Nonetheless, many students will increasingly be looking long and hard at business management courses even if they'd rather do art. If you incur a £40,000 debt, with regressive interest rates, you're probably going to be thinking about your degree in narrow economic terms. This is the thing that Michel Foucault noticed about neoliberalism. It is a prospectus for social engineering masquerading as a social theory.

And since the system will now reproduce social inequality in new ways, ratified by educational outcomes, the rich will be confirmed in their existing belief that they are uniquely talented and deserving. Those who lose out will blame themselves. That might, in fact, be what governments mean by meritocracy.

Richard Seymour has just completed his PhD at the London School of Economics


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