The Oxford Debate on higher education III: the price of everything but the value of nothing

Why the UK's higher education policy is topsy-turvey
John Parrington
12 February 2011

The Oxford University 'Congregation', the University's sovereign body which includes all permanent academic faculty, met in the Sheldonian theatre on 8 February to debate whether it should raise student fees in the context of a fierce wider debates. Some students were allowed to take part while others demonstrated outside. This is the third in the  daily series of contributions OurKingdom is running see Stuart White, and Kate Tunstall tomorrow David Barclay.

Oxford graduate Oscar Wilde once talked of people who ‘know the price of everything but the value of nothing’. I believe this is an accurate description of those in power at the moment in Britain and no doubt could be applied to many in the previous government. The reason I believe we should be opposed to an increase in student fees, and the proposed cuts to higher education, the two being in my mind intimately connected, is that those trying to impose this change know nothing of the value of what we are engaged upon here in Oxford, and because we in contrast do know the value of our teaching and research, we have a duty both to our students and to our research to oppose these measures with all the means at our disposal.

I’ll start with the proposed increase in fees, which we’ve heard over the last few days are almost certain to mean £9,000 per annum for the top universities and who some like the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds want to be unlimited. I’m sure we all agree that Oxford should be attracting the students with the most talent. However given that only six percent of children in this country attend private schools yet around fifty percent get into Oxford, it also seems clear that we must be failing to select a huge amount of gifted students. I was shocked to read in The Guardian recently that last year Oxford and Cambridge accepted more students from one private school – Westminster – than from the entire population of children eligible for free school meals. Can anyone here in Oxford really justify such a state of affairs? 

Actually I believe we do try hard at Oxford to reach out to students from less privileged backgrounds. I’ve been involved with various access programmes here, and I voted for the change in the selection for interview procedure in Medicine, which now means we take into account an applicant’s performance at GCSE A* compared to their school average, which positively favours academically gifted students in low achieving schools.

But I fear that all this will mean nothing compared to the negative impact that huge fees will have in deterring less privileged students from applying here. I think I can speak with some authority here having got into Cambridge from a Bradford comprehensive school that never sent students to Oxbridge and not only did not help me but actively tried to sabotage my application. I realised my dream through bloody-minded determination and a sympathetic admissions tutor. Yet if I’d been faced with the proposed fees I’m sure this would have been one obstacle too many to contemplate. And by the way, I’ve heard the arguments about student bursaries. The problem is that those underprivileged school students that need such bursaries most are the ones who are least likely to be informed about such measures; instead they will see what looks like universities run for the rich, and be put off from applying to such places.

Of course supporters of fees say that these are needed because of the massive cuts in funding that we face which are justified by the government by the argument that the universities needs to start paying their way. I find this argument fallacious since it only looks at the costs of educating students and carrying out research, and not what we provides in terms of wealth to the economy.

An Imperial College report published this January calculated that universities generate anything from £0 to £60 billion a year, or two to four percent of UK GDP. I was going to attempt a direct comparison with the wealth generated by finance, but then I thought how do you assess the true value of that industry, now we know how illusory a lot of it is, with its sub-prime subterfuges and the like. And yet it’s the universities that face huge cuts while the banks get billion pound bailouts, and bankers continue to rake in their obscene bonuses, despite having almost brought the world economy to a state of total meltdown. In summary, given what we contribute to the wealth of the country, we should be demanding a higher tax on businesses to pay for both our students’ fees, and our valuable research.

I make these points to show how nonsensical is the idea that the universities are in any sense a drain on the economy. But of course to measure our value only in these terms is to fall into the trap I warned against previously, of believing that something is valuable only in so far as one can put a price on it. Actually I believe that our most lasting contributions to society are those that are most difficult to quantify in purely monetary terms.

Thus, while my work is leading to new diagnoses and treatments for infertility and other medical disorders, far more important to me are the fundamental insights it reveals about the workings of the human body. Actually, it is such fundamental studies that often lead to medical and technological advances in the most unexpected ways. But anyway, why judge the value of academic work only by its potential practical application? How can monetary values be used to assess the importance of a valuable new insight into what was going on in Shakespeare’s head as he wrote one of his plays, or the social changes that led to the first flowerings of democracy in Ancient Greek times? Surely only a philistine would try. Yet it is areas like these that are being cut.

Because I feel so passionately about my research and my teaching I have been concerned by what I see as the passivity of the response of the heads of our universities and research councils to the huge cuts that the government wants to foist upon us. For instance why did Sir John Savill, chief executive of the Medical Research Council greet the announcement that funding into medical research was to be cut by ten percent in real terms as ‘better than expected’, at a time when countries like China are pouring billions into their science budgets? If I worked in the arts and humanities, where even more severe cuts are planned, I’d be even more angry about the failure of our representatives to mount any effective resistance. And why do the university heads seem to be responding to the cuts in such a passive, impotent fashion?

But you know, if there’s one thing my struggle to get from a Bradford sink school to one of the greatest universities in the world taught me, it was that if you’re not happy with a situation you try and change it. That’s why I attended the demonstration in London in November where fifty thousand lecturers and university and school students marched together against the proposed fee increases and cuts in education.

What struck me most about the demonstration was the vibrancy and creativity of the young people, but also the points they were making in their chants and placards, about the billions pouring into the war in Afghanistan, or into Trident missiles, or being spent on bigger bonuses for the bankers, or withheld from the economy in tax dodges by companies like TopShop or Vodaphone, all of which could fund the universities many times over.

In the 1960s, another period when young people were marching in the streets, Bob Dylan famously sang ‘Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand.’ What I’d suggest today is that at the very least we shouldn’t stand in the way of those young people protesting against the cuts, and that means doing our best not to block or sabotage their actions. But do we really want to be remembered as the generation that stood aside and let our children fight our battles for us?

At Worcester College we have set up a group for both staff and students who want to fight the cuts. I’d encourage those at other Colleges to consider doing the same. An important goal over the next few months will be building for the demonstration called by the TUC on the 26th March, since after all these cuts go far wider than just the universities.

Of course there will be people who’ll say the cuts are inevitable and we can’t do anything to stop them. But then I imagine there were many people in Egypt a month ago who would have said it was impossible to ever get rid of Mubarak and his corrupt government. Instead we’ve seen what ordinary people can do when they decide enough is enough. Well I say enough is enough when it comes to these attacks on our centres of teaching and learning. If you agree with me, I hope you’ll join with people like me who want to try to do something about it.

Dr John Parrington is a University Lecturer in Molecular Pharmacology and Senior Tutor in Medicine and Physiological Sciences at Worcester College, Oxford

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