The price of knowledge (and the knowledge of price)

It’s the start of another academic year – the last in which those students who took a gap year will have remotely affordable fees to pay and for most the first in which the cost of higher education will tip them into serious life-changing debt. With a variety of combinations of anxiety, regret and relief,  parents are contemplating empty teenage bedrooms whilst, with complementary combinations of exhilaration, anomie and panic, their offspring are unpacking their laptops and hanging their clothes in unfamiliar wardrobes. Over them all hangs the question: how will it all be paid for?

My daughter (born in 1982) was part of the first cohort in which parents had to pay fees at all, a generation that was walloped by government policy every step of their way through childhood. Too young to benefit from New Labour’s grudging concessions to working parents (childcare costs were not even tax deductible, let alone subsidised by the state when she was a toddler) yet too old to benefit from the more generous funding of state services for parents in the pre-Thatcher era. Every year, something seemed to be withdrawn that was available to those just a year older. The previous year at her primary school had a one-week trip to Wales for their school journey; her year had to settle for Essex. Hers was the first year to lose the free music tuition that had been available under the old Inner London Education Authority and the first year not to be given free bus passes for travel to secondary school – but also the last year not to benefit from the reduced fares for 16-18-year olds introduced by New Labour, along with Educational Maintenance Grants. This meant paying the full adult fare for the cost of commuting from Zone 2 to Zone 4 in her final two years at school. Hers was also the guinea pig generation for much experimental interference in schools: the first cohort to have to do SATS examinations at primary school, the first to have the choice of GCSEs constrained in such a way that it was impossible, for instance, to specialise strongly in languages, or in visual and performing arts (though in theory producing more all-rounders and reducing the gender gap in subject choice). Not only did this forgotten generation suffer right through their education. They also entered a labour market in which the concept of a job for life had vanished. Apart from a lucky few, there were no apprenticeships or protected graduate trainee positions to be applied for. Suddenly, they had to compete, not just with the contemporaries they had been educated with, but in a global labour market, with similarly qualified kids from all over the world. Without experience it was almost impossible to be employed and the only solution to this Catch 22 on offer to the majority was ‘work experience’ – the unpaid internship that was supposed to confer ’employability’ (in the process, of course, further undermining wages and conditions for the lucky workers who were actually paid).

The punishment of this squeezed and neglected generation was also, of course, a punishment for their parents, particularly those who, like me, were bringing them up on a single income. We are often presented (including by our children) as privileged baby-boomers, on the one hand blocking the career ladder for our ambitious juniors at work, on the other a demographic time-bomb representing an unsustainable cost to the state and an impossible burden on our childrens’ generation who will have to support us in our decrepitude.

For some, this may well be the case, but for many is is possible to see the economic role of this generation very differently. When we were young we entered a labour market based on a different set of welfare norms. The tax and national insurance contributions we paid went, not towards our own individual pensions, but, in a solidaristic model, to provide for the pensions of our parents’ generation and the  benefits paid to those who didn’t work in a more forgiving welfare state (including the cost of maintaining the mentally ill in – albeit sometimes harsh – mental hospitals).

This model changed when  most of us were in mid-career, in the Thatcher years. We were now supposed to be saving for our own future. But these were also times when the labour market was harsh for many of us, especially women, and even more especially for the growing number of women who were no longer living with a male breadwinner. Far from being able to put money aside, most of us were hard put to find the money just to survive and support our children. And many of us are still having to support them, well after they have reached the age when their parents were economically self-sufficient, in the phenomenon I once heard an Italian statistician describe as ‘Hotel Mamma’. It is not only infantilising and frustrating for them to have to go on living under the parental roof into their thirties and even forties; it is also both expensive and tiresome for their parents: a generation who left home in the 1960s and 1970s to gain some  emotional privacy are now deprived of it by the ever-present critical scrutiny of their children – and sometimes grandchildren.
I have been following the debates over the past few years about student funding with some astonishment. At some point – probably during the 1980s –  a seismic upheaval took place in the consensus that had existed between all political parties in the post World War II period that the cost of higher education should be borne by society as a whole, since society as a whole would of course benefit from the results. If graduates ended up earning more than their peers then, according to this post-war consensus, there was a perfectly simple way for the state to claim back its share of this additional wealth: through income tax. I am still puzzled by how this – to me self-evident – logic broke down. The new consensus, taken for granted as much in the Labour party as in the Coalition government, is that it is unfair for the rest of society to ‘carry the cost’ of tertiary education. Never mind the fact that the many graduates are highly unlikely ever to earn more than the average (think, for instance, of where a degree in theology, or archaelogy or mediaeval history might lead you). Never mind that many of the brightest will be encouraged to leave the country altogether and seek their fortunes elsewhere to avoid paying back their loans; the new common sense holds that it is right and proper that students should spend the most productive period of their adult lives after graduation paying back the cost of their tuition fees and their living costs as students whilst they attended institutions that, to add insult to injury, are rapidly becoming production lines of standardised forms of learning.

How did this come about? Whatever happened to the idea that collectively passing on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation has a general social value that may not necessarily be measured in high salaries? Might not we all benefit from  intelligent discussion on the radio, well-informed local government, compassionate public service delivery, thought-provoking poetry, joyful music and inspiring sermons from the pulpit at the weekend? Won’t well-educated adults make better and more responsible parents? When did the notion of income tax suddenly become a dangerously subversive political no-go area?

It seems as though the idea of social redistribution which is both intra-generational and inter-generational across a whole society is well and truly dead. The debate has narrowed to a kind of bickering about how the costs are to be redistributed over an individual’s own lifetime (which carries implications of inter-generational subsidy within the family): graduate tax versus various different forms of loan with a few means-tested subsidies for those who can prove themselves exceptionally needy.

In thinking about the unacceptability of the income tax solution it struck me that there is a real basis for a psychological rejection of it as unfair. And this lies in the reality that, to some extent, students really ARE privileged, and always have been. This is not necessarily a financial privilege. Indeed it can plausibly be argued that a combination of the downgrading of the value of an undergraduate degree in the labour market, combined with deteriorating job prospects and the burden of paying back a student loan will lead to the value of many undergraduate degrees being financially NEGATIVE. Rather, students (or at least those students who do not have to combine studying with paid employment or put in long hours in laboratories) are privileged in having a period of three or more years in their lives when they have the leisure to read and reflect and develop ideas, the opportunity to meet and get to know – and if they are lucky find soulmates among – a variety of people from different backgrounds, to follow a thought to its conclusion, to experiment socially and sexually, to experience the satisfaction of seeing creative effort fulfilled and to enjoy relatively unstructured time that permits them to sit up till four in the morning talking about the meaning of life. This is an idealised view and many never achieve a fraction of these things. We know that students are increasingly likely to suffer from depression and anxiety (with an alarming increase in the suicide rate) and that the pressure to earn whilst studying is constantly growing. Yet there is enough truth in it to rouse some resentment in those – still a statistical majority – who do not go to university, or at least to allow politicians to whip up such resentment.

Saddling  students with a choice between crippling debt or emigration does not, however, seem like any kind of a solution. Wouldn’t it be better to ask that this privilege is repaid to the rest of society through putting the  knowledge and wisdom that students acquire to good use? How about requiring all students to put in – say – 30 days a year voluntary work: acting as handymen/women or  gardeners to elderly and disabled people, cheering up residents in care homes, helping organise holiday playschemes for children, redecorating dilapidated community centres or whatever. Or, for those lacking social skills or not to be trusted around the vulnerable, manual work improving the environment?  Maoist-style Red Guards or Cameronian envoys of the Big Society? Either way, I suspect both they and the rest of us would benefit far more from this kind of social redistribution of knowledge and time than by channelling their debt (and that of their parents) through the dubious conduits of the banking system.


1 thought on “The price of knowledge (and the knowledge of price)

  1. Pingback: The income tax taboo | Ursula Huws's Blog

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