The best education money can buy

The acrimonious debate emerging in England over plans to open a private university college with £18,000 a year tuition fees and a superstar lineup of instructors will strike many Americans as a curious, old country dustup.

After all, what’s the problem with charging as much money as you can get away with for your services, whether that’s limo repairs or wedding planning or an elite education?

The notion that education should be equally available to all, without regard to financial or social position, is simply alien to the bottom line non-ethics of what Marxists like to call American “Late Capitalism.” Why, it’s as strange a concept as the idea of universal and affordable medical care. Save that socialist stuff for Canada and Europe, thank you.

Tuition and fees in the MBA program at Duke exceed $56,000 a year. The University of California system sparked a protracted and vigourous debate when, way back in 1968, it raised the resident tuition fee to $321 per year. For 2011-12, tuition is $11,618. In other words, tuition plus mandatory fees in the UC system today is fully 20% of the median pretax family income for the state of California. So much for universal and equal access.

Such simple calculations are of course complicated by the availability of a large number of scholarships and bursaries, as well as by the impact of forty years of inflation, but $321 was nowhere near 20% of the typical family income in late 1960’s California. Even after whatever adjustments you reasonably can make, it remains clear that access to top American universities has become more and more restrictive. (A similar if slightly more modest trend of cost increases is evident in Canada, which has in education, as just about everywhere else, a hybrid system somewhere between the American and British models.)

Now, in what many view as a dangerously retrograde step, American-style, for-profit education has jumped the Atlantic and is setting up shop on the home soil itself.

The new university is fronted by British philosopher Anthony Grayling, already controversial for his recent publication of The Good Book: A Secular Bible. Among the instructors Grayling has recruited on behalf of the well-heeled investors who are backing the New College of the Humanities are media heavyweights Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, and Stephen Pinker.

While the new college will operate on a for-profit basis, one in five of the 200 first students will receive scholarships to meet the high tuition fees, which are twice the controversial fees recently raised by the Conservative government.

As reported in the Guardian, Grayling said that he was motivated in part by fears that government cuts to university humanities and arts courses could leave “the fabric of society poorer as a result.”

Grayling explained: “Society needs us to be thoughtful voters, good neighbours, loving parents and responsible citizens. … If we are to discover and inspire the next generation of lawyers, journalists, financiers, politicians, civil servants, writers, artists and teachers, we need to educate to the highest standards and with imagination, breadth and depth.”

Negative reaction has been swift and has come from student groups, opposition politicians, and concerned academics.

The Guardian cited National Union of Students president Aaron Porter, who worried that “an education in humanities from some of the leading thinkers in the world will be restricted to the richest.” Labour universities critic Gareth Thomas said that “it is a sad reflection of the scale of government cuts in higher education that it is taking a private initiative to drive new investment in arts, humanities and social sciences courses.”

Marxist academic Terry Eagleton remarked in his own Guardian response that the New College for the Humanities was “odious” and that “for that kind of money, I would demand a team of live-in, round-the-clock tutors, ready to fill me in about Renaissance art or logical positivism at the snap of a finger. I would also expect them to iron my socks and polish my boots.”

Eagleton, never one to hold back a strong opinion, had this to say about the motivations of the star faculty, who will not only earn about 25% more than they could in the public system but also receive shares in the business:

British universities, plundered of resources by the bankers and financiers they educated, are not best served by a bunch of prima donnas jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded. It is as though a group of medics in a hard-pressed public hospital were to down scalpels and slink off to start a lucrative private clinic. Grayling and his friends are taking advantage of a crumbling university system to rake off money from the rich. As such, they are betraying all those academics who have been fighting the cuts for the sake of their students.

Of course, in the United States, after an obligatory internship the medics to whom Eagleton refers never do set foot in a public hospital, hard-pressed or not. The idea that perhaps one shouldn’t base all one’s career path decisions on the amount of money to be skimmed from the system is just another of those silly leftist notions that Americans can do very well without, thank you.

Eagleton worries that this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg and that “just when the real Oxford and Cambridge have been dragging themselves inch by inch into the modern democratic world, an ultra-Oxbridge is being proposed which will probably have an even lower intake of working class students than Cambridge did when I was there in the 1960s.”

Is there really no alternative to the incursion of market forces into the halls of British academia? Can the egalitarian ideal survive even in form, when, after all, it has never really succeeded in practice?

One potentially viable model of equal access to university education, a model mentioned by a number of critics and commenters already, is to turn university education into a 21st century version of the 19th century Workingman’s Institute. Record courses; upload them to YouTube (or YouLearn or WeTeach or whatever); let everyone download and view them for free.

This sort of thing exists already, in limited form. For one example, you can download videos and transcripts of Yale’s English 300 course, “Introduction to Theories of Literature,” with Paul Fry behind the microphone. You can study the course through the “Open Yale” program, but you can’t take it for credit unless you are a tuition-paying student at Yale.

However, there’s nothing in principle stopping Yale, or any other university, from offering most of its courses, and certainly all its core courses in the most popular programs, for full credit, online, at no cost.

Well, almost no cost. There’d have to be some ads to pay for all that bandwidth. Perhaps unblockable ads for selected titles? — say, The Good Book, The God Delusion, and The Blank Slate.

3 thoughts on “The best education money can buy

  1. The response to Eagleton has been that universities have always been a boondoggle for the rich including academics who fly all over the place offering private surgery (oops! opinions) for a fee. There is a tradition in the UK of academic education for the working class which Labour tried to institutionalize, but now appears to be an aberration in a long history which involved privileging class and classics. At least now learning Greek and Latin is decoupled from opportunities for financial success. Providing opportunities for training in making toasters, which they used to be good at, is being valued again.

    • “We’ve always done it this way” aka “Privilege goes to the privileged” seems an inadequate, even cynical, response, doesn’t it?

      Academic education for the working class, starting with the Workingman’s Institute of the 19th century, is the way out for many. Make it accessible (by making it affordable), and as the social shifting grows, the social sifting declines. The U. S., which once led the way with upward mobility tools like the G. I. Bill, now provides the model for reversion to the bad old days. Sad to see England join the parade.

  2. Although a Marxist from a working class background Eagleton has enjoyed the perks of an academic life. He is outspoken in his criticism but even working class Labour politicians accepted peerages.Maybe that’s why sainthood is granted only to the few.

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