Tuition fees: the neoliberals just don’t understand why we must educate our undergraduates

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The ConDems just don’t get the absurdity of their proposals on university fees. I’m not saying Labour did either (except in Wales and Scotland) but as the Guardian notes:

A review of higher education funding due out this week is expected to recommend that universities should be allowed to charge higher tuition fees and that the interest rate on student loans should increase.

Reports today suggested the review by Lord Browne would recommend abolishing the cap on fees, currently set at £3,290, and allowing the market to decide the cost of a degree.

I guess I should declare lots of interests: I have a degree, largely paid for by the state; I have young sons who may one day go to university (but who knows?). I want to live in a civilised society, where learning is valued for learning’s sake. And where all have equal access to it.

But there’s more to it than that. In ‘Making Pensions Work’ I wrote:

It is our suggestion that [current pension arrangements] ignore the fundamental pension contract that should exist within any society. This is that one generation, the older one, will through its own efforts create capital assets and infrastructure in both the state and private sectors which the following younger generation can use in the course of their work. In exchange for their subsequent use of these assets for their own benefit that succeeding younger generation will, in effect, meet the income needs of the older generation when they are in retirement. Unless this fundamental compact that underpins all pensions is honoured any pension system will fail.

This capital is not just financial capital: indeed, financial capital is an artifice that is, as I argue in ‘Making Pensions Work’, unsuited for pension use. The capital in question is the real capital that underpins an economy: that is tangible productive assets such as buildings and equipment, knowledge as to how to make things work — which is rarely created by multinational corporations, and it is human capital, but perhaps most important of all it is social capital.

What is human capital? It is “stock of competences, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labour so as to produce economic value. It is the attributes gained by a worker through education and experience.”

But social capital is a wider definition: it is “ the pattern and intensity of networks among people and the shared values which arise from those networks”.

And of course we can charge the young for their education. And of course we can deny many the education they want. And of course we can burden them with debt so their lives are a misery. And of course an elite with wealth can miss out on all that stress of debt. But in the process we destroy human capital, which is vital. And more important still we do irreparable harm to social capital. We destroy the link between generations. We fail to invest in the young and demand they invest in us.

But their retribution will be simple: why should they provide us with pensions when we failed to provide them with the capital they needed when it was necessary to do so? If that relationship fails the sting will be in the tail — and it will be on those who are imposing the charges now.

Of course that won’t matter to the ConDems — they are all wealthy enough to ignore the issue. But for ordinary people this policy is another policy nightmare and yet more evidence of the fact that, as someone put it to me yesterday, these people are intent on “screwing up not just now, but for time immemorial”.