Today’s news has been dominated by student tuition fees – both the vote in favour of raising fees to up to £9,000 a year, and the protests against them. I’ve posted some thoughts on my politics blog today, but in this post I wanted to look at a different, more “ethical” aspect.
The whole concept of tuition fees depends on regarding debt as a fundamental part of life in the modern world. It is now to be perfectly natural to embark upon one’s adult life with debts of £27,000 or more to your name before you’ve even got off the starting-grid. Yes, the debt will be on highly favourable terms compared with a bank loan – but it still demonstrates a significant change in our cultural attitudes towards both debt and education.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis in one chapter discusses “social morality”: that is, what would a society guided by Christian principles look like? One of the points he makes relates to this question of debt:
There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest: and lending money at interest – what we call investment – is the basis of our whole system.
Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong. Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or “usury” as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only thinking of the private moneylender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said.
That is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not. This is where we want the Christian economist. But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilisations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life.
And we can make that at least four great civilisations, given that Islam has been (and largely remains) equally hostile to usury.
Now, as Lewis himself points out in the above passage, “it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong”. However, it does highlight that what to us seems a perfectly natural and normal state of affairs is in fact one which is highly unusual on a historical scale. As I’ve observed before, making the unusual and contingent seem natural, timeless and unquestionable is a function of ideology. Tuition fees and student loans are thus yet another incremental advance for capitalist ideology.
Writing in 2003, Michael Gove (now education secretary) thought it so natural to weigh up the cost of a £21,000 loan against the alleged £400,000 lifetime benefits of a university education that, in his view, anyone who might be put off from studying by such a debt “doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place”. Four “great civilisations” stretching back 3,000 or more years would say otherwise. Who’s right?