Notes from the debt pit

Eschewing the City for the academy offers us scant protection, says Kevin Fong

October 23, 2008

In the midst of the recent meltdown of the stock markets I was surprised to discover a) how little I knew about how the economy works and b) how little anyone appears to have to know before they can make squintillions from it while simultaneously helping to screw up most of the rest of the world.

For me, the credit crunch began around 1990. My first year at university coincided with the first year that you could take out a government-approved student loan. I agonised over whether or not to do it.

Dad gave me the lecture about debt and all its evils, about how I shouldn't take the loan or that offer of a credit card that came with my student account, and that if I did, it would start me on the slippery slope to a lifetime of debt. I tossed and turned before signing on the dotted line, all for the princely sum of £400 (which I promptly spent on a huge stereo).

Later, when I graduated with my first degree, I had lost my fear of the edge of the slippery slope and had instead become proficient at skiing down it at breakneck speeds. The problem was, that while most of my university mates went off to the City in search of gold-paved streets, I went back to university and continued to dig my growing debt pit.

Over the years I watched my contemporaries get richer and richer in the financial sector, while I continued to perfect my grunge wardrobe and seek out more imaginative ways to prepare pasta and tuna. When on occasion we would meet up, the guys would try to explain their jobs and new lives to me without much success. It was during this time that I came to discover one of the fundamental laws of economics: the size of someone's salary is inversely proportional to their ability to explain exactly what it is that they do for a living.

But I now understand that they were, in fact, taking the hard-earned money being amassed and deposited by savers across the country, going down the betting shop and sticking the whole lot on Golden Boy in the 4.15 at Chepstow. Some of the worst Gordon Gekko imitators among these guys will have recently found themselves standing outside their office buildings holding cardboard boxes and their P45s. And while that might appeal to our sense of justice and reinforce our faith in karma, it doesn't get away from the fact that they have managed to take the rest of the world down with them.

Having eschewed a life of high finance and eye-watering Christmas bonuses, we might have hoped to have earned some insulation from the effects of the global downturn. But alas, no. As university endowments locked up in investments of variable quality begin to underperform and the Government tightens its belt, higher education will feel the pinch.

If there is anything good to come from this mess at all, it is perhaps that it forces us to question the view of the market as a force for unlimited good and, related to that, to question target culture and short-termism as well. I think this is long overdue as a general topic for discussion but has particular relevance for our higher education institutions.

There is without doubt a role for the market to play in driving down costs and improving efficiencies within our universities. But we must ask ourselves what the limits of its applicability to higher education truly are. The past few years, it seems, have seen the emergence of a more aggressive market- and target-driven culture across some of the UK's largest universities. One colleague recently told me that he felt his role had become more like that of a manager within a large corporation than that of a university professor.

And while we might fantasise about a future in which the annual Christmas wine-and-cheese gathering might be followed by a session during which the head of department hands out bonus cheques large enough to let you buy a couple of Lamborghinis, it seems reasonably unlikely that we would extend our emulation of the corporate sector to quite this degree.

Then there is the credit crunch to consider. Someone seems to have realised that something with such awful consequences shouldn't have a name that makes it sound like a breakfast cereal. People, I note, now refer more frequently to the "spectre of toxic debt", which seems much more appropriately malevolent.

But with toxic debt in mind, surely someone needs to have a really good think again about tuition fees. It's all very well uncapping them, but every mention of them seems inevitably to lead to a discussion of the student debt that one is expected to enter into to afford them. Presumably that student debt is propped up by precisely the cheap and fickle credit that characters such as Mr Northern and his mate Mr Rock used to rely on.

The assumption has always been that prospective students will continue to embrace the culture of borrowing to better themselves. But it looks very much as though we are likely to return to an era in which people become more averse to debt in general. Even if credit continues to be freely available, it will be interesting to see how much more of a disincentive to entering higher education debt will now prove to be.

Some of the biggest names in banking have gone by the wayside in recent months, having overextended themselves in business models that were unsustainable, without asking some very basic questions about their concept of operations. We are unfortunately far from immune to the repercussions, but we might limit the damage by learning from their mistakes and asking difficult questions sooner rather than later.

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