Thursday, March 19, 2009

Paying your way

Tuition fees for university students in England look likely to rise. Universities are expensive places to run and they do not receive sufficient direct funding to allow them to teach all the students they have without needing further payments directly from the students (or, rather, their parents/guardians) themselves.

This makes universities expensive places to attend. First of all, this cost may put off some people from the very idea of attending university. This is a bad thing and is at odds with the notion that, certainly at this university, we admit and teach the best students regardless of their background and economic clout. Well, the usual answer to that objection is something like the following: the cost can be in part delayed by loans and the like. But this shifts the problem into a graduate's later life and may well affect the sorts of careers a graduate will have to consider. It also makes a degree an investment, a gamble against future earnings.

Now I realise that we live in an imperfect world and one in which things cost money, people need to earn a salary, equipment must be bought, and the like. But, on the other hand, it does seem a little odd to consider an education to be something that can be given a price, a cash value that somewhere along the line has to be repayed or, better still, show a positive return. An education is not a commodity to be bought or acquired on a hire-purchase scheme. Nor is an education best thought of as an investment with a view to higher later earnings. If we start to think in these terms then the mere instrumentality of it all undermines the very point of the exercise. An education has a value, for sure, but not all values can be reduced to a set of commensurable list prices. And thinking that an education is worthwhile for the wrong reasons can have bad consequences for everyone.

We should fund universities so that they can teach the best people for particular courses because it is good for there to be people engaged in these intellectual activities, for there to be people teaching, learning, and thinking about these things. Full stop. This is not good for something further; it is just good. I happen also to think that holding this broader, more varied and richer notion of what is valuable will have general beneficial effects for us all, but whatever those further benefits might be they are not why education, for example, is to be valued. (For one thing, perhaps a broader notion of what is of value would encourage the sort of benefaction to universities which will allow them to go one doing what they do. If people just think that such an education is a good thing they will be encouraged to foster it and furthermore to do so without asking what the further knock-on benefits might be.)

So if we do not educate merely to foster economic wealth and we do not any longer think that we educate in order to foster piety, then what sort of reason can there be? 'Why should I fund scholarships to enable bright and enthusiastic people to study Norse literature?' 'Because it is good for people to study and know about Norse literature.' Just that. (The same goes, by the way, for education earlier in life. To ask: 'Why should 9 year-olds learn algebra if it will not fit them for a thrusting entrepreneurial career? Shouldn't they learn lots of IT instead?' is just the same instrumentality extended to cover every aspect of a poor child's development.) Some things are valuable because they are ends in themselves.


Tor Hershman said...

Most major Us, in the US, could stop taking any tuitions from us and not miss the loot in the least.

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