Editorial: Students as paying customers

Blair’s position is clear. He and his government want market forces to be allowed even freer rein to ravage universities and marginalise yet further what used to be seen as their original aspiration to be centres of learning and independent research. They want universities in England to function openly as businesses selling “education” to fee-paying customers known as students; in accordance with normal market forces, those with a higher quality product to sell will be able to charge a higher price. The government would act as a middleman paying the university-businesses up front and recovering a part of it, with interest, from the customer-students after they have graduated.

A far cry from the free education at all levels that used to be a key plank in Labour’s programme and a sign of how far Labour has gone in accepting, not just capitalism, but its whole logic and ethos. But this is nothing new. Labour in power has always ended up, like all governments, dancing to capitalism’s tune since that’s what government’s are there for: to run the affairs of the capitalist class of the country concerned.

Labour has dishonoured its pledges here, as on other matters, not because its leaders are dishonest or nasty or weak-kneed or sell-outs (though some of them may be), but because if you agree to govern capitalism you have to accept doing so on its terms, allowing profits to be made, prosecuting wars, standing up to strikers, since capitalism can only work as a profit-making system under which profits must come first.

Every Labour government has ended up doing this since the first one under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. The Blair government’s introduction of business principles into university funding is just par for the course. In fact, the whole history of the Labour Party has been that of a gradual slide into compromise with capitalism, ending up with the present Blair government which is indistinguishable from a Tory government.

Of course universities have never conformed to the image they used to project of themselves as places where study and research go on in tranquil isolation from business and money-making. Universities originated as centres of obscurantism in the Middle Ages where priests and seminarists discussed how many angels could dance on a pin-head. In fact until 1870 only those who declared that they accepted the 39 Articles of the Church of England were admitted to Oxford and Cambridge, which in the 19th century became centres for training members of the ruling class to run the Empire.

The Non-Conformist capitalists of the Midlands and the North responded by using some of their profits to set up their own universities – the redbricks – to train their children and some from humbler backgrounds to be the engineers and chemists needed to run and develop modern industry. A hundred years later it was decided to rename the polytechnic colleges – the polys – universities, thereby further strengthening the vocational training aspect of universities.

That in fact is what all universities have tended to become over the years: places turning out workers with a higher quality of labour-power to work in government and industry. True, they do carry out research but the content of this research is no longer decided purely on scientific grounds. This, too, has become increasingly commercial and business-oriented.

Not only has government funding become skewed towards such activities, but universities have to compete with each other and with universities abroad for contracts to do research for industry and business. Thus, it is now common-place to hear some university head stating that, faced with international competition, universities need more money from students so as to be able to train and retain high-quality graduates to carry out the research contracts they hope to win.

But this is what you would expect to happen in capitalist society where “commercial values”, “enterprise culture” and “business ethics” reflect the economic need to make profits above everything else since this is what drives the capitalist economy. In fact, it is utopian to imagine that universities could escape contamination by the marketplace. It is just ironic, but illustrative of the futility of reformism, that the latest move to subordinate universities to the market should have been thought up and implemented by the government of a party which once set out to try to gradually reduce capitalist influence on society.

It only remains to be seen whether it will be a Labour or a Tory government which will allow universities to change their email address from “ac.uk” to “co.uk” and add PLC after their name.

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