Sunday 15 January 2012

On Markets and a Quandary

The good news is that at Royal Holloway the Senior Management’s latest business plan has brought the definite proposed Classics redundancies down to ‘only’ two, from an original seven, and they are not to be implemented until 2014. Campaigning hard and publicly works. The bad news is that what is happening there is merely symptomatic of a much larger national problem. Any university in the country which doesn’t want to present itself as second-rate is now charging £9,000 for a year’s fees for an undergraduate degree. 

The members of my personal focus group of teenagers make two points loudly. First, they will not consider university if they have to shoulder all the debt themselves. No surprise there. Second--and I had not anticipated this, despite being personally convinced that the state should provide Higher Education to its young citizens--the teenagers are telling me that they don’t find the prospect of a certificate from a ‘for-profit provider’, even an old one with a blue chip reputation, as attractive as one from an institution which is somehow endorsed and supported by the public. 

That is, they think that getting a degree which was partly funded by their fellow citizens was a better, more prestigious and satisfying achievement than buying one from a private enterprise. They don’t feel they have to be graduates from the new, devalued model university to get on in life.

But this is a problem which touches me personally.

Like many other parents of secondary-school children, I am faced with a serious financial problem. I want them to have their mental powers developed at tertiary level, but if we are to stay in the UK I am going to have to find some hardcore money: 2 children x 3 years x £9000 = £54,000. I have not inherited any wealth, and am too old to begin a career in prostitution. 

The only mild talent I have is writing non-fiction, but the problem here is that I believe that all research and scholarship should be accessible to the widest possible public free of charge. A couple of years ago I resolved never to sign any more book contracts which sold the fruits of my (then publicly funded) research to private publishing firms. My intention was and is to explore publishing entire books free online which could be printed off if people wanted them. But I live in a world where everything is allowed to be dictated by markets rather than the principle of attaining the common good.

If I am not to put my own children at a serious disadvantage, I need to make money to pay university fees by 2017. I have always refused to get a literary agent, since I take a dim view of academics whose main goal is to nurture a personality cult. But educating one’s children is something else. 

Several years ago a well-respected agent approached me, and I did not respond. But yesterday I finally changed my mind. I am going to try to suggest that books sell better if they are also available free online (which is widely if covertly acknowledged in the publishing business). If I get lucky and make more than my children’s university fees, I will use the dosh to found the new management-free and fee-free People’s University. I’ll report back here next week.


  1. I don't like the new fees any more than anybody else - but it is simply false to state that somebody on a professor's salary but without inherited wealth cannot afford to send two children to university with £9000 fees...

    The loans system is not one I would defend as the best option, but it does exist and it does make it possible (so that the suggestion that you must get hold of £54 000 by 2017 is at best misleading).

    There's obviously room for disagreement about how the new fees should be opposed (and I agree that they should be!), but I think it is risky to do it this way, since there is a risk that one can end up making people believe that it is impossible for them to study when that is not the case.

    Good luck with the royalty cheques, though!

  2. You don't have to find £9,000 per year. The new system means that HE is free at the point of entry. You pay it back only after you earn above the national averse salary of £21,000 and even then in smaller installments than current graduates are paying.

    Under the old system you paid up front. If you took out a loan you paid it back once you were earning £15,000 pa and at a higher rate. Under that system a graduate earning £22,000 pa would pay back roughly £70 per month.

    Under the new system you pay after university and after you earn above £21,000. Under that system a graduate earning £22,000 pa would pay back roughly £40 per month. The loan is spread out over 30 years and wiped if not fully paid off by then. It does not affect your ability to get a mortgage and is not the same as a credit card debt.