The Government has finally found an ally in their struggle against the near unanimity of condemnation of their proposals to end institutional funding for students studying for an equivalent or lower qualification to the one they already hold. The Vice Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham - a free market fundamentalist - has risen to their defence. He is their only champion that I have come across so far. It is odd company for a Labour administration to be keeping. He writes in today's Guardian,
I don't often praise ministers, because they rarely do anything praiseworthy, but for once a secretary of state for the universities has done something good. John Denham intends to withdraw state support for students who want to study for a second bachelor's degree.
A sense of despair hit when I read that. Once again, this proposal does not just affect second degrees. It covers Certificates, Diplomas, short courses, Adult Education, continuing professional development, work related learning, etc., and predominantly hits part-time students. The idea that Universities are might be something other than degree factories offering a passport to a high earning job seems to have passed him by, as have the strong arguments against the proposals, which he reduces to simplistic clichés.
So what of the objections of publicly funded institutions?
The Hefce-funded VCs are beggars, and because none of them aspires to independence, they command little ministerial respect. Nor have they earned it.
And the solution?
British universities are being dragged into the market. They do not want to go there, and governments will drive them there only because taxpayers' money is limited, but markets will enrich the universities and incentivise the students.
The students I deal with have a massive incentive already, they want to learn. They want to learn because they want more out of life, not more in their pay packet. And it matters. Not for "the intellectual, cultural and economic capital of the nation", but for human dignity, personal growth, excitement and pleasure; in short, the sheer joy of learning. It matters too for people who have faced nothing but rejection and failure to find success. It can be a form of individual and collective liberation. They have chosen freely to learn, but increasingly many are being priced out of the education system.
Henry Hetherington's slogan on the masthead of his Poor Man's Guardian (1831-1835) was that "knowledge is power". Even if this may be an overstatement, ignorance is certainly the prerogative of the powerless. What value would the market put on this?
My colleague Daniel has a letter in the Guardian (scroll down to the second one). I am disappointed in him. He said that it was all plagiarised from one of my emails. In fact he only took a single phrase. He's not a patch on Will.