The UK Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, wishes to see a new ‘value for money’ test applied to universities, which, he says, will see cuts to the fees charged to students doing Arts and Social Sciences subjects.
Mr Hinds, who got a First in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, seems to think in terms of the first and third of those subjects. Mr Corbyn is offering to abolish fees, so politically the Tories need to do something to appeal to the young. One might expect a man with an Oxford First to realise that offering something for nothing is always going to trump offering something from which you have to pay; especially with anyone economically illiterate enough to believe the Labour leader. Economically, he seems to think it an easy matter to put a value on a degree. Does it lead you to a good job?
Mr Hinds was educated at a Catholic Grammar School. One presumes he did not come across the Blessed John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University there, or, indeed, elsewhere. But that he went through a Catholic education and should have come out with such a utilitarian view of the purpose of higher education is a disappointment. Managing to study Philosophy at Oxford and still having a purely instrumentalist view of higher education ought to be surprising.
But one does not need to be a philosopher to question whether Arts and Humanities subjects are of lesser value than more vocational ones. That well-known leftist Think Tank (that is joke by the way), The World Economic Forum, has articulated the qualities it thinks desirable in national leaders. Not one of the qualities, which are needed among more than just the ‘leaders’, is discipline specific. All of them require what the Minister himself seems to lack, which is the ability to take the skills one learns at university, skills such as critical thinking and empathetic understanding, and apply them to the task in hand. One hopes Mr Hinds will remember some of those skills before it is too later.
At the moment the UK’s universities stand second only to those of America as an international success story. In the last five years they have faced a revolution in the context within which they work. From a situation where they had to deal with a Government-imposed cap on the number of students they could take, and low fees, they were pushed into a free market where they could take as many students as they could get, and charge up to £9k a year (now £9.25K) to each of those students. The market worked as the market tends to. Many students went where they thought they could get the best value for that money. They based that judgment of ‘value’ on many things, but not money alone. Universities adapted with speed and agility to the new situation. But now, just as they are coming to terms with it, HMG seem determined to change the rules of the game – again.
If Mr Hinds’ views are economically reductionist, they are also regressive. Children from backgrounds where there is enough social capital to realise the value of Arts and Social Science subjects, will continue to do them, but at a reduced price; children from other backgrounds will be deterred. So, within a generation, Arts and Humanities and Social Science subjects will be the the preserve of a social elite at a few “top” universities. Let’s return to the 1930s, it was so much better then.
But above all, Hinds expresses a deeply philistine view of education. Wilde defined a philistine as one who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Value and ‘values’ as not the same thing. What value a society of educated people able to think and make informed decisions about political and economic issues? But let’s not worry, seems to be the argument, ‘value for money’ can be defined in narrow utilitarian terms.
If, as Mr Hinds claims, he wants to continue widening access to Higher Education – a line I support, let us widen it for all subjects, not just the ones a current generation think economically useful, especially when the yardstick used is the wrong one. That a Conservative Catholic should be so confused about the value of higher education is deeply depressing.