Our quest for knowledge takes a wrong turning

February 7, 2003

Endless talk of debt and of future financial reward has blinded us to the proper purpose of education, says Alan Chesters

The dilemma for universities and colleges created by the ever-decreasing financial value placed on each student by the funding authorities was bound in the end to create a crisis. During the 12 years I chaired the governing body of St Martin's College, the problem of satisfying legitimate pay demands and of recruiting academic staff became ever harder. The general pressure has been exacerbated in recent years in particular departments: for example, improved salaries in schools have imposed greater pressure on education departments. Different higher education institutions have felt the pressure in different ways.

Something had to be done and something is to be done. The government at least deserves credit for taking action. It has needed courage because doing something in this case leaves everyone more or less worse off. The students are losers with the prospect of looming debt. The popular universities are losers because they cannot charge as much as they would have liked. Those that decide not to charge top-up fees will lose the revenue. Those that find recruitment more difficult will lose all round.

Perhaps top-up fees via a graduate tax was the least worst option. I understand the government's reluctance to charge extra on top of general taxation, because it is simply not true that everyone gains from a strong higher education sector. Those who have experienced it and have the degrees to show for it are the ones who have benefited most. I am surprised that there has been little discussion about the option of imposing a tax at once on all graduates. It would have allowed many who enjoyed higher education in the past, in effect free of charge, to contribute differentially to the costs of higher education for their successors. A tax on all graduates would have meant extra money for universities now rather than a trickle in three years' time.

The government's chosen course of action has some difficult implications.

The debt burden on students will increase and its repayment will be delayed. For some - clergy for example - with incomes not much above the threshold, it will hang over them for much of their working lives. A mortgage could be thought to do that, but at least a mortgage culminates after 25 or 30 years in an upland of high value and no more repayments.

Graduates will be mortgaged to their pasts not their futures.

Some individuals and some members of particular groups in society will not wish to be burdened with such debts. This may be for ideological reasons, as with many in the Muslim community. This will impact negatively on many of those in the target groups for access and widening participation. No access regulator can attract into higher education those whom government policy itself deters. Others will take jobs throughout their university careers; almost half the students in some colleges and universities work up to 20 hours a week, with consequent damage to their studies.

But there will be many for whom the prospect of debt is no deterrent. For them, instant gratification will be everything. They will have the opportunity of a lifestyle their parents might envy. They may come to believe that the way of debt is a good way of life and that everything can be had now and payment deferred. Surely such learning is damaging? A great part of a child's delight at Christmas is the anticipation. A great part of the achievement of the athlete is the hard work in the build-up to the race, the steady, daily effort with little or no reward until the moment of achievement and triumph. These are surely virtues that everyone can admire and from which everyone can learn. They are undermined by the spirit or expectation of instant gratification. The human longing for growth and development, for fresh aspiration and achievement, faced with instant pleasure, could end in satiation and dissatisfaction. The habit of ever-greater consumption surely undermines the human spirit. Is this sound education?

Finally, there is an underlying implication for the purpose of higher education, even the purpose of education itself. It is now fixed in people's minds that graduates benefit financially throughout their working lives, on average by £400,000. Higher education brings financial benefits. It is about achievement, study for a purpose, the purpose of doing well in life. For too many students, this utilitarian connection is already well established. What is lost in the talk of debt and financial reward is the sense of education for human growth, for achieving human potential, for becoming the best that we can be. If the great liberal aims of education ultimately give way to the utilitarian, we shall all be losers in the end. There must be a better way.

Alan Chesters is bishop of Blackburn and chair of the Church of England Board of Education.

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