Alas, University, We Knew Thee Well

The announcement that there will be no cap on tuition fees for English universities made me very sad today. Granted, our country’s finances are in dire straits. But it seems hugely short-sighted to try to claw back that money by raising costs for students, and setting them off in life with huge amounts of debt.

One of the key themes of the first section of Other (seriously, you should read it!) is that of the importance of the time between leaving parents and beginning work. Reflecting on Jesus’ time in the desert in light of this, I explore how our language still has that monastic feel to it. One ‘goes up’ to University to ‘read’ a subject, before ‘coming down’ at graduation to begin a ministry.

University, as Prof Mark Edmundson puts it in a wonderful article I quote, is a place where one is supposed to ‘meet one’s antagonists’ – which fits in with Jesus’ temptation narrative too.

I was fortunate to go to university pretty much for free. I came out with a shocking overdraft of £500. I paid no tuition fees and got a grant. In my first summer holidays I was even allowed to sign on. I don’t doubt it would be impossible to return to those days given the wider access agenda that is important too. But I do feel very worried that the saddling of students with all this debt is going to be very very bad for us. Why?

Because part of the importance of university is the fact that much of the time is… wasted. Just as an accountant’s view would see Jesus’ 40 day desert sojourn as a waste of time (and wasn’t that part of the temptation – to start commodifying and turn those rocks to bread?) The danger is – as a colleague put it to me today – is that people will simply not bother to study subjects like the classics or history, literature even – because they are not going to lead to highly paid jobs. Degrees that are not vocational could die out. ‘History,’ one applicant was told, ‘is something you can do in your spare time.’

But it is precisely in the arts and other research subjects that uncommodified time can lead to extraordinary fruit. New inventions, new music, new directions in writing and art… All this could go. Brought up without child benefit… saddled with £40,000 of debt for a degree, and working til you’re 75… All of this points to a society completely enmeshed in capitalist consumerism, in debt and commodification. Money is all that talks. And that is utterly depressing.

I hope we see an ignition of proper student anger and indignation at this. We’ve already seen philosophy departments shutting, and many many other ‘useless’ faculties will go. Leaving us with… accountants and marketing men. A totally monetized world, devoid of beauty, of history, of the joy of wasted time. A sad day indeed.


2 responses to “Alas, University, We Knew Thee Well”

  1. acetate monkey

    Hmmm. I’m a bit torn about this issue. Despite wishes (and a weak inclination) to be the kind of person who thinks uni is good just in itself, I know that as someone with a vocational degree (though thankfully nothing to do with maths and numbers) I view the future thinking of my children and feel an urge to encourage them to follow a path which may be ‘useful’ to them (i.e vocational) rather than working at achieving a degree only to end up in a job they could have entered three years previously. I am deeply skeptical of some of the degrees that exist and wonder if they are pointless wastes of time, which would be better served listening to Melvyn Bragg on R4. I suspect the agenda for pursuing academic qualifications may be flawed. Sure some people show academic inclinations, but others show more practical intelligence. Why were polytechnics training people to be competent in the trades so bad?

    Re: the commodification issue, I wonder whether you fall into that trap too Kester. The outworking of degrees in “the arts and other research subjects” is still sold in your piece as an investment in a product which could produce “extraordinary fruit. New inventions, new music, new directions in writing and art”. Is it possible to honestly 100% believe in knowledge for knowledge’s sake without recourse to some secondary commodity it becomes? (Devil’s advocate Q)

    I’m not sure what the alternatives can be if there genuinely is no ever-lasting money tree. Either way, I agree it is very myopic. Apart from anything else, those graduates with qualifications which are vocational, especially the longer ones like veterinary science which may be able to charge up to 10K, will no doubt seek to recoup their expenditure in higher fee-for-service, storing up more cost for everyone in society.

  2. You’re absolutely right. It is such a sad state of affairs that this is seen as the best way to claw back some money… by perpetuating debt, shifting it from the state to the person.

    I wonder where we will find the time to be a Big Society… If we graduate with £20-40K of debt, generally can’t get a well-paid job until we’ve spent some years working internships or in low-paid jobs, when are we meant to find the time to volunteer in our communities? I imagine many of us may feel like we need to take on a second job instead…