At 5.41 p.m. on Thursday 9 December 2010, the University, as a major public UK institution, found itself assailed to its very core. It was at that moment that a teller in the British House of Commons read out the result of a vote, which the governing coalition (of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) won, by a majority of 21 votes: 323 to 302. The vote – carried by some 28 Liberal Democrat MPs who had been mandated by their constituencies explicitly to vote against such an increase, and who had pledged to vote against any proposed rise – tripled University tuition fees at a stroke. It did this in the wake of the Browne Review, focusing on the sustainability of the University sector. However, this was but the first strike in a more sustained attack on the very principles governing our idea of a University and of the principles of a University education. Fees have to be trebled for the simple reason that Universities are to have their funding cut by the coalition government: the budget allocated for teaching will be reduced by 80 per cent and the funding for teaching in arts, humanities and social sciences will be cut by 100 per cent. Fees are being imposed at this inflationary level in order to fill that funding gap.
The political backdrop to this is the financial crisis that hit the advanced economies in 2008 and that produced recession among those economies. The problem was caused primarily by the private sector in our economies and most specifically by the banking sector. The problem was so huge, however, that the only reasonable way of beginning to solve it was by helping out the banks, through the use of public funding: that is, money that had been raised from general taxation. Once this was done, then a fundamental slippage occurred that has had massive repercussions for the entire public sector and for the arena within which the University operates. Tax revenue diverted to solve the crisis produced from bad (and sometimes wicked) activity in the private sector leaves us with a shortage of public funds. Thus it is that a crisis made in the private sector becomes a problem for the public sector. Thus it is that the public sector has to carry the cost of the losses made by a private sector that continues to enjoy governmental backing and support. Thus it is, finally, that a Conservative-led administration can find cover for the advancing of an ideological programme that it now claims is a necessity rather than what it actually is: a choice.
However, fees themselves are not new in this post-Browne system. The idea of students paying more or less directly for a University education begins in the UK at an earlier date. It was a Labour administration that brought in the fees system in 1998. That was also brought about by a vote in the House of Commons, but that earlier vote was won by a margin of only 5 votes. In other words, had 3 people out of around 650 voted differently, we would not have introduced the fees system at that time. The narrowness of these majorities (3 votes then; 11 in 2010) indicates how contentious this whole ideologically driven procedure for funding the University has been, historically as well as in the present time.
At that earlier stage, the fees regime was slightly different; but its principles were grounded in the same logic. The argument advanced in favour of a fees regime is that a University graduate will benefit financially from their education. Accordingly, they should be required to pay for that education, which is now construed less as an education and more as a business investment. The logic presupposes that there is a direct link between the specifics of a University education and higher-paid employment; and it also presupposes that the system of general taxation will not be intrinsically progressive enough to ensure proportionate payment through that route. That is: it accepts that general taxation will favour the retaining of excess wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals and that such wealth will excuse those individuals from playing a full contributory financial part in the social formation or public sphere within which they gain their wealth.
In the work that helped the then Labour administration to secure political agreement for the imposition of fees, its key architect, Nick Barr, points out that the inspiration for the system is to be found in the work of the economist Milton Friedman. Friedman began his career as a Keynesian, but, by 1965, had started a process whereby he more or less completely reversed his economic and political views. By this time, he was well on his way to the position with which more recent governments became familiar, in which he argued for the primacy of a kind of competitive acquisitiveness as the driver of all social activity. In his more extreme moments, Friedman provocatively suggested that a kind of neo-Hobbesian greed was the driving force of human activity as such, almost to the point where greed became the foundation of a kind of ethics. To be human fully was to accede to the foundational force of individual acquisitiveness that would set us at an advantage over others: greed became the first principle of ethical relation.
Now, this is a political position, and one that has been argued for in many arenas. However, what I argue here and what I have argued throughout the pages of this book is that it is a drastic over-simplification and one that, in its crude simplicity, essentially falsifies the description of our human or social being in the public sphere. The fundamental problem with it – quite apart from any moral revulsion that we may feel – is that it ignores entirely the complexities of human motivation. I am certainly not going to take a simple opposition to the ‘ethics of greed’: it is not the case that the motivations for all human activity are founded in a spirit of benevolence, any more than that they are all founded in or explained by greed. Rather, I will assume that it is more or less self-evident that human motivation is much more complex than either of these crudely simplified positions would have us believe.
Throughout the 1980s, this Chicago School economics, advanced by Friedman and others, was in the ascendancy. It combined with a preference, among governments in the advanced economies, for ‘market’ solutions to social and other problems that those governments were facing. The combination of greed and an allegedly ‘free’ market yielded a heady mixture that was supposed to give freedom itself to participants in the markets that now appeared in all walks of life. One key question that we would have to pose, however, is the question of how ‘free’ the free-market itself actually is. Markets can be ‘free’ if and only if their activity is undertaken in some kind of ideal fashion. They presuppose an ideal consumer, one who is not shaped by anything other than their own rational processes regarding the choices that they might make within the market (including the choice of whether to participate or not). This has to ignore any and all forces and influences that might shape our ideal consumer. Those forces, of course, include things such as a general ideology, fashion, peer pressures, family histories, somatic pressures such as thirst or hunger. In short, they presuppose that the consumer is an entirely discrete individual, separated off from any such force. However, there is, according to the synthesis of free-market and Friedmanesque individual, a force at work: the quasi-instinctive force of greed itself. There is, thus, a logical self-contradiction at the very heart of this ideology; and the ideology thus makes not only for a falsification of the actual state of affairs, but it also produces a rather toxic version of the individual, as one disfigured by a greed that separates them from the public domain, the very sphere in which markets actually – as opposed to ideally or abstractly – exist.
However, for the sake of argument, let us here assume that Friedman is right and that greed is a founding condition of our being. Now, let us add politics. Politics, if it has any function at all in this state of affairs, is there axiomatically and by definition in order to combat the kinds of negativity that will alienate us from the polis, from the public sphere. Politics, as the very word suggests, is that activity that binds us in a polis and that combats atomized isolation from the community as a whole. Now, throughout the 1980s and leading up to our present crisis, we have had a choice in the advanced economies. Either, we can have a government that celebrates – and in some case venerates – individual acquisitiveness and greed (and in the UK, we might identify that with Thatcherism); or we can have governments that see their task as one whereby they accept that greed drives everything, but that they should limit themselves to moderating and regulating its effects (and again, in the UK, we might identify that with Blairism).
That is to say: political discourse around this question has effectively been lost. Politics, as a matter of preserving the polity, has now disappeared. Both positions outlined above have ceded the argument and the ground entirely to those who wish to evacuate politics of any real meaning or actual purchase on material realities. Politics has become something divorced from the historical realities of everyday life – or, at least, that is what the prevailing ‘non-political’ ideology would have us believe. That is to say, we are encouraged to believe in a kind of natural condition, one that is non-political, in which isolated atomism is a norm. The argument of this book is that it is time to revive politics in relation to the question of the University. It is time to exercise a political will for the University.