Education campaigners reject idea of students as consumers

Convention for Higher Education’s rallying cry against coalition’s university reforms

June 13, 2013

A “statement of principles” challenging the ideals of “consumer sovereignty” and financial “realism” that underpin current government policy on higher education has been issued after an event rallying support against coalition reforms.

The eight-point statement emerged from the Convention for Higher Education, organised last month by the University of Brighton’s Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics and co-sponsored by the Campaign for the Public University, the Council for the Defence of British Universities and the local branch of the University and College Union.

“To insist that a university education directly benefits only those individuals gaining a degree is wilfully to misunderstand that university education is a social good as well as an individual one,” it says.

“Arguments that a university education should be paid for by the individuals it benefits are destructive of the very idea of such an education as a social good.”

Meanwhile, “a real and serious commitment to widened participation” could also “help to counter the damaging effects of great disparities in wealth”.

The text argues that “clear-thinking, independence of mind and intellectual courage benefit the public and not just individuals” and that “consumer sovereignty is both an inappropriate means of placing students at its heart and liable to distort well-structured education”.

Furthermore, “higher education should be seen as part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations that will support them in turn.

“The higher progressive taxes needed to make this possible would therefore benefit everyone – including current taxpayers.”

The document also addresses the vexed question of tuition fees, stating that austerity should not be used as an excuse for levying fees instead of funding higher education directly.

“The withdrawal of public funding is not something that should be accepted because of ‘realism’ about the public finances,” it says.

“The removal of fees in Germany is an indication that an alternative is possible: an alternative to the present funding regime should urgently be sought.”

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