I thought the BBC News website was playing up again when ‘Johann Lamont raises questions over free tuition policy’ popped up. Surely she hadn’t decided to go further down the road taken at the infamous ‘something for nothing’ speech?
At the centre of Lamont’s critique of current education policy is something fairly irrefutable. Despite there being no tuition fees for Scots students there is still a frightening disparity in the number of rich and poor children attending university. This is simply not good enough, and with one eye on academia I must say that universities are shooting themselves in the foot by not tapping the underdeveloped potential of some children from poorer backgrounds. I’ve seen it both as a student and latterly as a course tutor.
But Johann’s critique, instead of asking what is desirable in society and asking what the best way to get there would be, simply looks at all the bits of the train set and makes a decision on how best to put the track together. It illustrates well the managerialism which has crept into politics and the lack of real vision which has accompanied it. The ‘long term solutions’ envisaged by Lamont only reinforce the status quo which has caused so many problems. There is an implicit acceptance in the existence of rich and poor, and with it the idea that social inequality is to be tolerated so long as those at the bottom have the means to raise themselves to the sunny plains of the middle class.
This background-based approach to the provision of services also reinforces the very notion of patronage which I thought Johann’s party were supposed to dislike. By linking children to their parents we reduce them to assets. Should a mother receive less maternity pay because she has a rich husband who can keep her whilst she is off work? Removing universalism as a philosophical grounding to how we organise our society can only lead to social friction. It reduces our personal freedoms and traps us in systems of patronage which can only be broken via collective understanding of and consensus on universal rights.
If you charge for university based on the assumption that it will result in higher earnings, you reduce a degree to nothing more than a means of individual self-betterment in the narrowest and most soulless sense. If you charge because you feel that those from wealthier backgrounds should pay, why not just levy a higher rate of income tax as a general principle?
Universalism is vital to a society because it is a concrete sign of the fact that all of us, wherever we may be from, have the same basic rights and opportunities. Furthermore, to try and remove universalism from higher education is an attack on the right of all people to develop what makes us people, our minds. If Johann wants to see an end to the something for nothing culture, why not reduce subsidy for railways used predominantly by middle class commuters, or airports used by people from privileged backgrounds as they jet off on holiday?
There is an argument to be had about the appropriate subjects for a university to be teaching, and whether or not some disciplines would be better taught in a non-university environment, but universities are built on the notion of universalism – of teaching all subjects and all students equally.
A university can take no blame for what happens before students reach its gates. It can try to discern more carefully between students with an expensive education and students with a keen mind, something many are not currently very good at, but the inequalities which are inherent in society from a child’s formative years cannot be laid at the door of the university. It is a responsible government which will work to eradicate poverty which will change the kind of student entering Scotland’s numerous and generally good universities.
The narrative presented by Johann Lamont in her education vision is one of hardworking individuals working their way out of poverty. This is in some sense admirable, but it is also inherently antagonistic toward those who currently enjoy publicly funded education. It is a strange corruption of class politics which assumes both the continued existence of poverty and buys into an old fashioned concept of social climbing, rather than an aspirational vision of what an egalitarian society can look like.
This is not to say that the SNP are any better in their educational/social/economic policy (and these things are inseparable). Neither do I buy into the SNP spiel about having a social democratic vision for Scotland. Social democrats don’t freeze local tax and refuse to use the income-tax powers given to them, nor do they spend increasingly large amounts on private transport and refuse to embrace truly social urban policies. The worrying thing is that, in a country where we have two parties who call themselves social democrats, neither seem to really understand what the term means. We need to have Johann’s honest conversation, but the outcome should be a recognition of the need for greater collective resources, not the abandonment of the principle that all of us are of equal worth.