I have always enjoyed the prospect of visiting schools and talking about university education. I remember a particular session that took place in the late nineties that is relevant to the current debate about the rising cost of education. It’s a wet, cold Monday morning in south London. A class of Year 11 sociology students awaits the arrival of the lecturer from the university college up the road.
The working-class students of all shades who sit before me are a good sample of the kind of young people that successive governments have tried to lure into higher education through widening participation initiatives. None of them have family members at university. As I prepare to deliver the pitch on why going to university is a good idea, I see out of the corner of my eye a student staring blankly at a window made opaque by condensation.
Doing these sessions is always challenging and rewarding. Increasingly though my enthusiasm is tempered by doubt. I was the first in my family to get a degree and by a twist of fate I now teach in the place that I studied at almost three decades ago. As much as my generation owes a debt to the university as a place of new opportunities and fresh horizons, it is nothing in comparison to what this class will owe in financial terms if they embrace the same opportunity. A three-year degree will leave them with a debt of tens of thousands of pounds. Regardless, the group on this particular occasion listens with courtesy to my invitation to think sociologically.
At the end of the session I packed up my papers. But I couldn’t get a troubling question out of my mind. If I had been faced with the same choice as these students would I have taken the financial gamble and applied to university? In all honesty, I don’t think I would have. We are told that poorer students will get ‘special treatment’ and financial assistance. Yet at the same time low income families are placed in a situation where the size of the educational price tag is simply too much of a risk. Claire Callender has argued that the fear of student debt inhibits widening access to university. As she herself has noted, despite this there has been a measure of success in widening student participation and the introduction of student fees that were implemented in 2004 did not halt this.
In 2010 HEFC reported ‘young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter higher education has increased by around +30 per cent over the past five years’. However, according to Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access, for the top third selective universities, the proportion of disadvantaged students ‘remained almost flat’. There may be an increased measure of access to higher education but there has been little change with regard to where the most advantaged students go to university. The choices students make according to Claire Callender and Jonathan Jackson: ‘reflect their material constraints as well as their cultural and social capital, social perceptions and distinctions, and forms of self-exclusion – all of which are class bound’.
In 2010 the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat government trebled university fees at a single stroke. They protested that provision is being made for the poorest students to ensure they can access a university education. There is something very Victorian about the way Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians refer to the image of the clever but excluded poor students of Bermondsey and elsewhere. It is precisely the politician’s privilege that makes them unable to face up with sober senses to what they are doing.
Hand-outs reinforce class distinctions rather than blur them; they ease the guilt of the giver while reducing the recipient to a ‘hard luck’ case. The key thing that is left out of the ongoing furore about student finance is the emotional politics of class and relative poverty. Class mobility has always been a precarious trade-off between individual escape and the security of group associations, friends and family. More often than not the price of educational opportunity is cutting class-based cultural affinities and associations. This is what Richard Sennett called ‘the hidden injuries of class’. The tools of freedom and opportunity – in this case education – are organized in ways that make them also ‘sources of indignity’. The financial premium on education intensifies these emotional dilemmas.
Among most working-class and poor families there is a deep fear of debt. This is more than simply a matter of financial risk, it is an ingrained anxiety about being unable to ‘pay your way’, as much a cultural phenomenon as an economic fact. During my time as an undergraduate the few working-class students I knew never ran up large bank overdrafts; their grant cheques were meticulously accounted for. Rather, it was the students from moneyed backgrounds who cashed cheques like it was going out of fashion.
The present system of student finance will do nothing to address the fear of debt and the emotional costs of class mobility for students with no family history of going to university. It may also have detrimental effects on racial equity. Poverty is disproportionally black and brown and one consequence of the current system – regardless of the determination within minority communities – is that a multicultural university will be harder to accomplish.
Before leaving the south London students there was time for a question and answer session. I could tell the teacher was edgy. A young woman sitting on the back row held up her hand patiently but was passed over by the teacher. Her vigilance was rewarded with the last question. Cutting to the bottom line she asked, ‘Sir, how much do you earn?’ I blathered on for a few seconds saying ‘it not just being about the money’. Her hand went up slowly again as if hoisting the flag of my own surrender. ‘But, how much do you earn?’ I told the inquisitor how much I earned at the time as a junior lecturer. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘You expect us to get up to our eyes in debt for that!’
One way to interpret the withdrawal of public investment in higher education by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government is that they want British universities to have an American future. Chris Newfield, one of the most insightful commentators on the US academy, pointed out in 2011 that the great lesson of the last thirty years is that tuition fee increases did not fix the financial problems of US universities. Through accessing the University of California faculty reports he calculated that in order to return UC to the level of resources it enjoyed in 2001 it would have to find £25,000 per year – double the charge in 2011. Increasing student fees is not the solution to the problem of how to fund universities. Perhaps, if the universities were within reach of every able young person, all taxpayers might be willing to pay the price.