Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Tuition fees in the UK

Whoever moderates The Spectator message boards obviously felt this comment was too long or too high-horsey, so fwiw:

Btw, on the University of Life, I think I agree. I wonder how it fits in with the wider question of social mobility? The prospect of going into loads of debt puts people off going to university. Especially so if, for instance, nobody in that young person's family has ever been to university.

Now, the question for me is, are those young people -- the ones who are put off by debt -- are they just being divas?

After all, if they went to university, chances are they'd get a better paid job. If they didn't, they wouldn't have to pay back the loan. So anyone who can't see the value of investing in a university degree must be a deranged savage, incapable of basic financial calculation -- right? Or else some kind of pathetic, skittish self-sabotaging fraidy cat?

No, I don't think so.

I think we ought to give these school-leavers a little more credit. For a start, they know their own lives are much more than some financial instrument reducible to risk and return. Above all, they know what it would FEEL like to be so deeply in debt. The pressure of regular assessment at university -- endlessly being poked and prodded and told how good or bad you are, endlessly being reminded that your level of academic achievement is going to determine on some fundamental level who you are in later life -- that pressure can be amplified tremendously by the experience of being in debt.

It's really crucial to recognise this.

When you're up against a deadline and then the printer jams and you hand it in late and you lose 10% automatically, how does that feel? It might feel annoying and frustrating and pointless. Or it might feel like this: "I gambled thousands of pounds that aren't mine trying to be something I can never be and now I have inevitably fucked up and soon everybody will know. I want to die."

For anyone who has tendencies toward self-doubt and self-recrimination, it may be very rational, sensible, and realistic just to avoid that kind of constant psychological pressure. You might just know yourself well enough to know that you wouldn't flourish under those circumstances.

Again, this is something that disproportionately affects young people according to the class and wealth of family and friends, and the overall bounciness of your safety net. Second, I think young people considering whether or not to go to university know that stress on the soul slowly re-shapes the soul. Almost as frightening as the possibility of not being able to cope with debt is the possibility of learning to cope with it ... and the kind of person you might become in the process. Crudely put, somebody who always thinks about things in monetary terms. Yes, money influences every single aspect of our daily lives. That doesn't mean that obsessing about it makes you a better person. Even if you do think it makes you a better person, you can see why school-leavers might not see it that way.

Third, perhaps school-leavers who are put off by debt have a good handle on the opportunity cost of a university degree? This is the main University of Life point. Let's say that the sole purpose of university is preparation for work -- a notion which the loan system inevitably propagates -- well then, a young person may quite reasonably identify some less risky way of entering the workforce. Again, this is something that disproportionately affects young people according to the class and wealth of family and friends.

I don't actually know that much about media studies degrees, so I wouldn't knock them just out of prejudice. What really interests me about this whole aspect is: what if somebody suspected that they would face greater obstacles at university because of their race or class or regional accent, or the education they've received to date...? If somebody suspects that the transferable skills that they might acquire in a History/Sociology joint honours degree would not be valued by employers, unless additionally catalysed by certain class markers...? Well, I think I'd try to argue with that young person and persuade them otherwise, but I wouldn't be sure of myself. And I would completely see their point.

Fourth, they may be justifiably sceptical that the terms of repayment will never change. To be in debt is to be in somebody else's power. Loopholes loom. Laws change. Does that sound paranoid to you? Spend a little time contemplating, for instance, the bizarre cack-handed grooming and Kafkaesque cruelty many benefits claimants have faced over the past decade. Do you know anyone who has been a victim of, let's say, one of those murderous Atos-outsourced "fit to work" decisions? If not, pretend you do. To add just a little more context: the most extreme forms of debt are almost indistinguishable from chattel slavery.

But take it all a step further. Finally, school-leavers are able to extrapolate from all the factors that influence their individual decision. From this, they are able to come to a judgement about who goes to university, and why, and what kind of place university is. Is it a crucially formative place filled with new freedoms and new challenges? Is it a place where you can test out your own latent qualities, and experiment a bit with who you are? Discover what you're good at, what fascinates and excites you? School-leavers might guess no. Or is it a land of debtors, many of them struggling to get by, their debts mixed up in their very spirits? Filled with hardworking, slightly haunted consumers of higher education, who have skipped a significant amount of self-discovery and self-fashioning, in favour of an off-the-shelf pro forma adulthood, partly designed for them by the sector where they hope to find some economic security, plus a debt they drag around that will make at least some of their decisions for them, and whose highest hope is that they may one day earn enough money to pay it back in small instalments? They may quite reasonably guess yes. Universities are not like that -- I was about to say "yet", but actually, I kind of hope it may never become that, no matter how hard the Conservatives try to make it into that.

BTW: in Europe, the UK is a real outlier. I think we should talk more about that.


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