Monday, January 22, 2007

Start saving now...

...because, if you have children who will be going to university in England any time after 2009, it looks as if you will have to stump up at least £6,000 pounds per year in tuition fees. That, for what it is worth, is the current -- and, no doubt, deliberately shocking -- estimate from a newspaper poll of a hundred university heads. Bad news for all, I think, and we will have to face once again the worrying claim that this will badly affect subjects like mine (Classics and Philosophy) which do not have the obvious and straightforward instrumental value of leading to well paid employment after graduation. (It's not really and straightforwardly true, you know, that people with Law or Economics degrees go and earn lots while Classicists and Philosophers do not. Plenty of students leave with these degrees and go on to earn plenty, perhaps even enough to pay off a weighty student loan and the various fees they have incurred along the way. But not all do and -- this is important -- we don't and must not want them all to. It's good to educate people who go on to be teachers, artists, charity workers and so on...)

It's a grim thought and has been buzzing around my head hot on the heels of some thoughts about whether Classics is a 'social leveller' of a subject. The argument goes, I think, as follows: many works in Latin (for example) are hard to read; in fact, they are so hard to read that it is not possible to gain an advantage in reading them simply by throwing money at the problem. And knowing Latin and literature in Latin is a key to upward intellectual mobility. So it sorts out bright students and moves them forward without the output being distorted by irrelevant inequalities of economic and educational background. There might be something in this, though I'm not sure that it is any more true of Classics than of some other university subjects. The most significant problem with the argument is, as ever, one of access to Latin in the first place: despite the best efforts of some very dedicated teachers and organisations too few students have the opportunity to learn Latin at all. And even if the opportunity is there, Latin has to compete for interest with other worthwhile and, perhaps, more immediately useful and attractive subjects. And in any case, we university teachers had better not think it true that the quantity and type of teaching you get is entirely irrelevant to your eventual success in the subject. (True: more expensive teaching is not necessarily better, but somehow this all reminds me of the standard retort to the trite observation that 'money cannot buy you happiness': even if it cannot, it can make your misery much easier to bear...)

So here I am dedicated to teaching a subject which is undoubtedly hard and rewarding but which, very soon, will in all likelihood be even more expensive to come and learn. Some expense can perhaps be accommodated and perhaps the prestige (and perceived later earning power) of a Cambridge degree will mean that people will be prepared to come here and pay a price which would put them off studying the same subject elsewhere. And various institutions are, I should emphasise, doing what they can to offset these pressures with scholarships and hardship funds. But increasingly I cannot shake the thought that, had I been applying to university now rather than x years ago, the thought of the large fees and loans might well have pushed me away from Classics -- a subject I love -- towards something else, rightly or wrongly. That thought leaves me with a strange combination of feelings; it makes me feel both personally very fortunate (sometimes it is good not to be young) and also increasingly concerned.

No comments: