Austerity canard stymies funding debate

Who in our sector has the political will to make the case for state-backed higher education for all, asks Thomas Docherty

July 10, 2014

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

Bevan fought to establish the NHS. Who today would show the political will to establish a mass university system with similar ethical determination?

Two falsehoods are stymieing proper consideration of university funding: austerity ideology, and the myth of a mass higher education system.

Austerity ideology is politically convenient. It absolves the political class and our own sector leadership from responsibility for the adverse consequences of harsh policies. If money is scarce, we must all compete for it, like scavenging animals fighting for food to survive. Self-interest becomes the motor of efficient “competition”: the strong thrive, the weak die or are strengthened by competitive necessity, leaving a better overall ecology. This is just how it is in our austere state of nature.

“A Conservative Government will cut out all unnecessary Government expenditure, simplify the administrative machine, and prune waste and extravagance in every department.” That sentence is from the 1951 post-war manifesto, when real austerity entailed food rationing – but also a socially equalised sharing of privation. If we compare post-war political will with contemporary political cowardice, we can test our commitment to the university and to a mass higher education system as a social good.

In 1946, the political theorist Hannah Arendt received a copy of The Idea of the University, which was written by her mentor, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers had revised the book, originally published in 1923, for the post-war context, when German universities needed to recover from explicit institutional and ideological conformism to Nazism. He advances a reconfiguration of academic freedom that, today, is everywhere threatened again, thanks to a failure of political will – and of leadership – that allows intellectual freedoms to be sacrificed to financial priorities.

Writing to Jaspers on receipt of the book, Arendt firmly expressed the view that, given the cost of the higher education system, it must be state-funded. But it was vital that the professoriate should not thereby become tacitly politicised “civil servants”. Academic freedom meant that universities should be governed by intellectual demands, without improper political interference.

While Arendt read Jaspers’ book in New York, Nye Bevan was planning the UK’s National Health Service. For Bevan, health would not be rationed but available to the masses. He faced intense opposition: the British Medical Association’s former medical secretary, Alfred Cox, likened him to “the Medical Führer” of a Nazi system. However, by guaranteeing full medical autonomy, Bevan’s NHS established proper ethical priorities: mass health before elite money.

It is doubtful that anyone today will demonstrate the political will to establish a serious mass university system with similar ethical determination. Austerity excuses the sector’s inaction; yet the comparisons are telling. Overnight, on 5 July 1948, we went from zero to 100 per cent health cover for about 50 million people, for life – and the state paid. Compare that with our contemporary university funding predicament. Until 1997, with 39 per cent participation rates, the state paid. Today, about 49 per cent participate. That 10 percentage point rise represents not 50 million people but the low hundreds of thousands of students. And they don’t need support for life, but for three years.

Yet the very idea of state-funded higher education is becoming almost unsayable.

Counter-intuitively, when an elite 5 per cent of the population occupied all the university places, it was deemed proper that general taxation subsidised it. Yet when we have mass education, austerity dictates that the state must withdraw financial support. Funding it through general taxation is “unrealistic”. In other words, the wealthy are scandalised at being progressively taxed to subsidise the poor through higher education. Times are hard; and austerity trumps social commitments.

This canard must be exposed. When the state has formally disinvested itself of financial interest, we do not even have a mass system. Further, given the miscalculations regarding student loan repayments, we are laying the ground for yet more austerity ideology in the future, as an impoverished state will have to pick up the tab. The austerity cycle will turn again.

Universities are becoming privatised on the same quasi-charitable model as the ancient “public” schools. Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440 with the intention of providing free education for 70 poor young boys, who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge. The rest pay; yet the school retains charitable status despite its privatised funding. Universities are increasingly reliant on forms of charity or endowment or on the assumption of private debts to sustain the system.

University education was never “free”; it was sustained by intergenerational commitments. Our elders paid tax – a duty and social commitment – so that we in turn would commit tangibly – dutifully – to future generations. That is a duty towards the future.

Bevan faced down the vested interests of the BMA. Today, the leadership of our sector seems entirely unwilling to confront the vested interests of corporate and private greed that is unwilling to pay the kinds of tax rates that would permit a debt-free higher education system for all. In its silent acceptance of the myth of the unaffordability of mass higher education, our leadership endorses that avarice instead of rejecting it. Much is at stake, including – as in 1946 Germany – the survival of academic freedom: the freedom and political will of the academy to question the allegedly “realistic” political discourse of austerity.

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