Messages from the Dearing debate

October 3, 1997

Diana Warwick once again repeats the ethical argument seemingly swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals that "It is only fair that those who benefit from a university education should make a contribution" (THES, September 5). Clearly this view, based on the picture of a privileged elite benefiting at the expense of the general taxpayer, is becoming increasingly less sustainable as participation in higher education increases.

The policy of increasing higher education is driven by the needs of the economy. As repetitive work is increasingly automated and "high value added" employment requiring creativity and a substantial knowledge base replaces it, the great majority of the population in advanced economies will require higher education. Under these conditions the differential advantage of the university graduate in the jobs market will disappear.

The main beneficiaries in such a society will be capitalist enterprises or perhaps the community in general, not simply the educated worker who would no longer be part of a privileged elite. The unwillingness to fund higher education via business or the taxpayer is itself driven by economic factors. The government has accepted the view that for industry to compete for emerging global markets it requires a low tax regime.

Whether this is true or not, as the chance of the higher than average wages disappears with the increased supply of qualified people, the wealth of one's family will determine the degree of burden of education costs. The net result will be to entrench social disadvantage. The arguments about the funding of higher education will then be no different in principle to those surrounding the funding of secondary education in the immediate postwar period.

The CVCP should stop repeating their anachronistic ethical argument which would justify the privatising of higher education at precisely the time when it is less than valid (before the expansion they said nothing) and address the real issues. Indeed I am surprised that neither they nor the Dearing committee noticed the potential contradiction inherent in this position.

Ray Kelly, Hamilton Road Longsight, Manchester

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