When it comes to the spiralling costs of university tuition, most of the focus has been on its discouraging effect on poorer students considering higher education. Intimidated by the prospect of insurmountable debt, the reasoning goes, less affluent students eschew degrees in favour of immediate employment – a situation which has only been made worse by the abolition of maintenance grants. However, the initial impediment fees represent is only one half of the story. For those who go, in spite of potential penury, the mountain of debt accrued while at university has some particularly pernicious consequences.
The first crucial point is that no-one need pay any more than a token amount for their education. When tuition fees were introduced in September 1998, the UK was experiencing the highest GDP growth rate in the G6. What is more, far poorer countries than ours, such as Mexico, and richer nations like Germany have either no or low university fees. If, then, from an economic perspective, charging students exorbitant prices for degrees is nonsensical, why do they exist?
Perhaps the most convincing answer is that they are a “disciplinary technique“. Looking back over the last fifty years or so, one can see the problems bright young people cause when allowed to get together, organise and focus their attention on activities other than making ends meet… The dying embers of the Occupy movement are the most recent example of the threat posed by a non-working youth.
Now, having passed through a commoditised education system, where the object is not knowledge, but increased employment prospects, graduates emerge afflicted by an enormous psychological pressure to pay off their overwhelming burdens of debt. Ensnared by the expectation that they have payments to meet, educated young people have no option now but to kowtow to the irresistible demands of the market. No longer do people have time to think about or question anything; the overriding requirement becomes to get a job – in particular a well salaried one, rather than, say, a more socially minded one – and begin paying for something which was yours by right anyway.
The benefit for the ruling class in this arrangement is obvious; the loss for society manifold. The rapid normalisation of tuition fees demonstrates neatly the insidiousness of the neoliberal ideology. Now students are consumers, they are individuals set against each other in a competition for employment so that they can service their loans. Their capacity to band together and imagine an improved and fairer society is neutered. The threat to the establishment is dissolved, education is denatured and the germination of another generation of docile consumers is assured.
Originally published in the Huffington Post (2015)