Alison Wolf

September 19, 2003

Unions are rolling out the expected positions, but must the hypocrisy surrounding top-up fees be similarly predictable?

As a teenager, I chose to study social science because I wanted to understand how people, economies and societies work. Contrary to conventional wisdom, modern social science does a very good job of this. I just wish the result wasn't so depressing.

Take trade unions. There is by now a large literature on why we do (or don't) join them. I'm pretty representative. I sort of feel I should make some contribution to a body that represents employees vis-a-vis management, and I definitely feel that, in a dispute, I'd like someone there on my side. I also know that unions are in the membership business, so they champion the policies that offer most to their largest membership groups.

If you link the different schoolteachers' unions to the jobs most of their members hold, you can predict near perfectly the sort of salary structure each supports. And, surprise, surprise, the same holds true for higher education.

At the Trades Union Congress conference last week, the higher education unions Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers were in totally predictable mode. It wasn't simply that the AUT was arguing for far more government money - which, since there is never limitless funding, amounts to claiming that we are more deserving than Britain's pensioners or the millions stuck at home caring for sick and disabled relatives. It was also, and equally predictably, arguing for equality for all universities - no top-up fees, and especially no differential ones.

Any change that proposes more competition and differential rewards also creates resistance from those already in the business, and universities are no different. More people tend to worry that they'll do worse than are confident that they'll do better - especially since many new entrants, and future winners, may not even yet exist. The natural preference of business is a cosy cartel: Adam Smith concluded that "people of the same trade seldom meet togetherI but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public".

A majority of AUT (and Natfhe) members are bound to fear that they and their institutions will be losers in a sector with differential fees, differential income and a real feeling of winner-takes-all in the air.

Parallel to this, at the Universities UK conference, people were arguing for the same flat fee for all universities, and anyone who knew the sector could easily predict which vice-chancellors would or wouldn't be in favour.

But if our unions' policy positions are so inevitable, does the hypocrisy surrounding them have to be similarly predictable? Arguing that only "dimmer and dimmer members of the upper middle class will go to university" and that tuition fees will automatically drive away working-class students may be a great way to get sympathy from backbenchers and the general public. Outsiders will rarely know policy details; our union leaders can and do. They know perfectly well that the poor don't pay fees (and that there is no evidence from here or overseas of fees affecting general participation rates, either). What really hits poor students, and keeps them close to home, is maintenance costs. Grants will come back at significant levels only if we get more money into the system - which in practice means fees from middle-class students, the major beneficiaries of low (and uniform) fees.

The one surprising thing in the current situation is that the government ever made these proposals. What one would confidently predict, for a centralised, nationalised system such as ours, is underfunded uniformity.

The world-beating system of the modern US - and of Germany in its glory days - rests on multiple and competing sources of funding, from states and localities as much as from individual students. Dictatorships don't worry about institutional equality: the USSR had no more problem giving huge sums to elite institutions than China does today. Contrast that with, say, Italy, which has believed for years in more differentiation for its university system and hit almost an impasse in the face of each city and region's insistence on its share of the budget.

In the UK, we've made the tensions inherent in our system even greater by creating a single unified sector. So, while France spends very different amounts on different parts of tertiary education ( grandes écoles , universities, l ycée -based tertiary courses), here everything is a university, funded through the same institutions. Any social scientist, looking at our democratic state, would bet on equalised, centralised funding. I hope that does not come about - mostly for educational reasons, but also because it would be cheering if human behaviour weren't quite so easily explained.

Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.

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