Paying For Education

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The media and press are happy to play in their world reporting on the Middle England or London issues, the antics of Mays and Boris, and whether the Queen should get a new yacht, and at her ripe old age. What is she expected to do, go hunting for shark?

They leave the fast disappearing Scottish press free to continue spinning the Westminster line, which is, under SNP watch Police Scotland, Scotland’s separate NHS, and that perennial thorn in the body politic, Scottish Education, have gone to rack and ruin.

All evidence points in the opposite direction. Our educational system functions well. Political opponents concentrate on primary and secondary levels of success or failure, but being champions of neo-liberalism, they avoid any study of higher education beyond basic numbers attending college courses.

Education is target of political charlatans

When voter support appears to be waning tell them their kids are failing at school, and society with it, because ‘your child’s education policy is a mess!’ What about their higher education? How messy is that?

Contrived protests about Scotland’s higher education always omit to mention the annual allowance given by the UK Treasury will never be enough to fund the universities properly. And that has meaning. The more universities are short of cash flow the more they sell off, land banks, buildings, art collections bequeathed to the public under university guardianship, (Edinburgh University was stopped from doing just that by a group of its own alumni) departmental equipment, and worst of all, courses to corporate sponsors.

The SNP were originally elected on a policy of wiping out student debt, surely one of the great scourges of future generations. You leave university saddled with £30,000 of debt, interest accruing! That goes a long way to keep students from rioting in the streets against injustice, more worried about paying their dues.

Money for Trident, none for education

On gaining power as a minority administration the SNP discovered the kitty was bare. But they did reverse Labour commitments to introduce full fat fees, and instead make higher education free for indigenous students. The irony is, Labour was the party committed to that socialist ideal, that torch handed to the SNP.

Remarkable, is it not, how Westminster crows about the UK being a rich nation – and we certainly are – yet not rich enough to afford a free education system! In an earlier essay I gave the example of Mexico a country burdened with poverty and a massive population. It’s higher education is free. The ratio of students remaining and working in Mexico in comparison to those taking work abroad after their course is superior to the UK.

Nobel prizes can’t be bought, but you can buy an honorary degree, and you can buy an elitist education. Education is now the prowl territory of the markets. Scotland is not immune. How can it be our universities are citadels unto themselves?

A degree can be bought

A university principal once asked to meet with Sean Connery to encourage him (shall we say) to contribute to the university fund. “Tell Sean he can expect an honorary degree if he helps.” I remember the long pause, which I covered by sipping more coffee. I ran the remark around my head to check he’d actually said it.

One the one hand his offer was unethical. On the other, why didn’t he offer me a degree if I convinced Connery to cough up?

Thank you ceremonies are never couched in those terms. You get an honorary degree for outstanding work in your field, for public service, or philanthropic deeds. But a degree bartered blurs the distinction between one earned and one bought. It corrupts the process.

Of course, selling honorary degrees is done discreetly. Readers would not have known about my experience without this recounting of it. (I turned down the offer.)

I think the same concerns hold true for admission to universities. Allowing any old college to call itself a university by the simple expedient of agreeing to offer degrees we dilute excellence. Scotland has a plethora of them. No one thought about the standard of teaching that would result from renaming a practical course a scholarly course. Great universities are great because the tutors are outstanding in their chosen subject. But there’s not enough to go around. Colleges that become universities still employ college lecturers, not dons, or scholars, or gifted academic pioneers.

One way to increase revenue is to sell off student places to those with most money. In that event how can a parent take pride in seeing her son or daughter accepted for higher education, or the student, for that matter.

Access isn’t only done with money

Progeny of alumni can be given preference as a kind of affirmative action.  Mum was a fine student, well behaved, a team player, the son might be the same so lets admit him though his school qualifications are average. And there’s many a recorded tale of the exceptional admission: son of a some shady dictator or politician gaining entry by dad’s million pound donation – the last scandal being the London School of Economics taking Gadhafi’s son and largesse without blinking an eye. He got an honorary degree in economics.

When people say, but Gadhafi’s son must have had some ability, I answer, not really. Lecturers are paid to assist students through courses to good exam results. I should know, I was a lecturer for some years. The mediocre are classed as ‘the worst in their year’ but they pass, rarely tossed out on their nose.

Relaxed qualifications for entry

The other kind of degree, the one at the end of a four year course, (English universities offer ludicrous ‘fast-track’ two-year courses) is another issue. Examiners and lecturers alike tell us of relaxed admission criteria for obviously less than smart applicants, in particular foreign students whose parents are able to pay lucrative fees. If you’re born of affluent parents you’re in.

In the end, it’s about securing well-paid jobs by dishonesty. You come from the elite class and you are guaranteed a place back there again. Your parents paid for the journey and they expect their money’s worth.

The university has become a place that serves big business; they slot students into courses dictated by companies who sponsor this or that. The institution of higher learning is degraded by market valuation. In effect, it’s an exchange of goods.

Either a nation  reveres free education, or it tosses the whole lot, primary, secondary, and higher, to the winds. If it’s not free woe betide anybody from a poor situation. There are no ‘fair bargaining’ positions.

Degrading educational standards

The corruption of our higher education is a matter of too few qualified staff, a diminution of state funds, and the lack of institutional integrity. The Scottish Parliament run by whichever party does not have the levers of power to alter educational provision radically.  The current SNP administration can only stem the neo-con tide short-term. Selling degrees is not a voluntary choice for state education. It’s imposed by brutal fiscal government policy based on ideological dogma.

Universities need money to pursue their ends, and that will always be the case even if governments were to subsidise every student. But chasing donations at any cost and creating corporate orientated courses corrupts indefinitely. The belief that our universities are hallowed seats of learning for learning’s sake is undermined.

What is lost is the pursuit of truth, the questioning spirit, and academic and scholarly excellence in the arts and sciences.

What’s next for the ‘free markets’? Selling your kidney because of extreme poverty?

Oh, hold on a minute!-

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Statutory free higher education or …..

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