The hypocrisy of marketising education

Have you heard the famous story about Thatcher visiting Oxford in the late 80s. Supposedly she asked a young woman what she was studying. “Norse literature,” the woman replied. To which Thatcher said, “What a luxury.” Is not the central promise of free market capitalism a little luxury?

I was thinking about this in light of the general move by government to turn universities into technical training centers. It occurred to me that this whole scheme is deeply anti-market. This pleased me given the right’s obsession with hypocrisy. Had I located a piece of deep seated hypocrisy within their ranks?

Allow me to explain. Let us consider the student as an ‘instrumentally rational’ consumer who seeks to ‘maximise utility’ (my attempt at producing a maximally vulgar definition of mankind). Surely it would be deeply anti-market to try to engineer a particular choice of subject. Is this not exactly what we see with the drive to disproportionately fund ‘STEM’ subjects (every government initiative must be accompanied by an ugly acronym)? If the market were functioning then surely technical graduates would be more employable and therefore technical courses more attractive to students and would have no trouble recruiting. Why then does the government see fit to control how university funding is directed to encourage ‘commercially useful’ subjects. Perhaps STEM graduates are preferable to governments because they lack the skills required to criticise governments?

Those of an extreme persuasion talk of the dismantling of the university. I’m inclined to agree. Ironically I believe the engineering of subject choice would worry Hayek himself. I stumbled across the following in The Road to Serfdom:

“The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”
Adam Smith.

Yes, that is Adam Smith I just quoted. The other deep hypocrisy is that while Thatcher had a scientific education, Osborne has none. What did you study Osborne? PPE. What a luxury. I find it fitting that a man who once bragged to a school child that he was good at maths because he ‘had an A level’ in it, is now lecturing the finest minds in all subjects about the importance of ‘Science’. I take ‘Science’ here to mean the subjection of the individual to industrial and economic strategy. The more quaint definition ‘the study of the natural world’ is of course regressive.

I recommend you reread CP Snow’s famous Two Cultures lecture and then move on to FR Leavis’ hilarious and ill mannered reposte (both available here). Leavis described Snow as a portent. I fear that what he portended is now with us.

The government is attempting an engineering of the market in degrees which is an attack on what Kant called ‘the public use of reason’. It is strangely Stalinist in its subjection of the individual to a ‘long term economic plan’ and it must be fought by anyone who believes an education should teach ‘the best which has been thought and said’. Perhaps the two cultures we are presented with are not the scientific and the literary but rather ‘the public use of of reason’ and ‘the public use of coercion’.

If I permit my most extreme mode to reveal itself, I am reminded of Socrates standing trial for corrupting the young. He defended himself by comparison to horse races which were popular at the time ‘you think they make you happy, but I make you actually happy’. The modern academic is similarly on trial. Of course employment is an important metric for any university but if you place intellectual rigour beneath employability you will end up with an uneducated population which might not be such a sane long term economic plan.

The invisible hand should be allowed to operate. Allow the student to choose her subject based on purely selfish motivations of her own choosing and without design she will become a truly useful member of society who can contribute to the public use of reason. The decision we are faced with is whether or not to agree with Chomsky’s bleak statement, ‘most education is just training in stupidity and conformity’.

I described the marketisation as a hypocrisy because it denies the existence of two markets. The market for buying graduates and the market for ‘buying’ degrees. All this so called marketisation is is a government colluding with the buyers of graduates to crush the free market in choosing what subject you want to study. How far are we from government control of degree prices to encourage useful and vocational subjects?

Finally, let me finish with a plea to prospective students: study what you want. Did Newton create a new world out of a desire to be useful? Did Einstein give us the deeply useless General Relativity so that we might more efficiently manufacture cheap consumable goods? Did Babbage give us the ‘innovation’ required to revolutionise the world economy out of a desire to ‘foster innovation and skills’? Education is a moment of civility in a lifetime of vulgarity, let us not sit by as our great universities are turned into state subsidized industrial research facilities. That it is the right that attempts this is a historical curiosity. That it is the left that finds itself protecting the individuals power to choose is a responsibility that cannot be shirked.

Your vulgar servant,