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Working for a Degree and the End of Study

November 5, 2014


I am a spectacularly lucky individual in many ways.  I grew up at the right time and in the right place.  I grew up before the word “entitlement” became a term of abuse.  I grew up in the knowledge that access to higher education was not about money.  Or at least, not specifically about my money.

News that Lower Saxony has joined other German states in abolishing university fees has traveled widely.  In the UK and the USA this announcement has drawn a mixture of admiration and scorn.  I think it’s worth while analyzing some of the scorn, in order to consider its the meaning of terms like “work”, “entitlement”, and “education”.  The UK and the USA have some of the highest tuition rates in the world and also (coincidentally?) the lowest rates of social mobility in the western world.  They are “born poor – die poor” nations.

Phrases like “education is never free” and “of course you should have to WORK for your degree” are commonplace, as is the constant harping reference to “feelings of entitlement” – which are always a bad thing, even if (especially if) entitlements are rather selectively targeted.

A heroic picture is painted of people who work hard to pay for their university fees.  But this can only be painted rather sketchily because if you try to flesh out this idea it can’t really withstand daylight.  The idea that by flipping burgers for twelve hours a day over the course of a summer you can afford to pay the tuition fees of Harvard or Yale is obviously nonsensical.  The ‘work’ that pays for tuition fees is generated not by the prospective student, but by the prospective students parents.  Or grandparents.  Or in many cases even further back.

Even if it were possible to pay tuition fees by engaging in back-breaking menial labour, this model of working for a degree would still be decidedly dodgy.  Because what it serves to obscure is the reality that even though my degree was “free” in the sense that nobody charged me any money for it, it was not “free” in the sense that I thought I was entitled to it without effort.  The effort was, however, confined to the decisive category of study.  The primary work that was to lead to my degree (and, more urgently – a particular category of degree) was scholarly.  Without work of this nature, I assumed that no degree could be forthcoming.  The degree could not be “mine” unless I imaginatively engaged with it.

What has happened of course, is the commodification of education, the assumption that education is a commodity like any other and can be paid for like any other.  A syllabus is a menu and modules are courses that can be chosen by the paying customer.  There are various inherent problems with such assumptions.  If you are paying for food in a restaurant, then money (and/or possibly a dress code) can fully validate your successful consumption of the food.  If you fail to clear your plate, you won’t be refused an itemised bill proving that you have successfully dined.  Nor are you graded by the restaurant staff on how carefully you chew and digest your meal.  (It is possible that there are some terrifyingly demanding Parisian restaurants that do this – but in general this never happens.)

The construction of education as a purchasable commodity therefore presents problems of how to fail people who have already established a financial contract.  If the “work” for a degree is primarily determined in terms of money, then how can a legitimate cash payment be obviated by something as vague as “study” or the lack of study?  The same people who claim that free education produces an unhealthy sense of entitlement are very quick to assert their own version of entitlement once they’ve written a cheque.

The effect of sky high tuition fees is, in reality, to secure the hegemony of inherited forms of wealth.  Education, potentially the source of upward social mobility, becomes a means of fencing off a range of professions from the reach of those too stupid to get themselves born into wealthy families.   The war against a so-called “entitlement culture” is restricted to attacking any sense of entitlement belonging to people without parents able to pay for an expensive education.

In the UK, in particular, the cruelty of the situation is exacerbated insofar as it is the very academics who have themselves benefited from the upward mobility that  tuition free higher education used to provide who are now required to act as the gendarmes  of the new feudalism, to supervise the exclusionary accreditation of hereditary wealth.  In a generation, higher education has ceased to be a ladder of advancement and has become a means by which the aspirant untermensch can have their knuckles crushed if they attempt to grasp the rung of any such ladder.

If “work” is only “work” if it can be expressed as a dollar or pound value, and if a university degree is, essentially a receipt for payment rendered – then any recognition of scholarly “work” starts to vanish.  Education itself is imagined in intransitive terms.  The student’s own labours offer no “added value” if the degree is the product of cash payment rather than the imaginative endeavours of study.  Yet again, the restaurant model collapses because the education is not really “tasted” – but merely injected.  It is not a transformative experience but rather a process of accreditation.

Everywhere in the world, there are people who are raging against the dying of light.   Without rage, there is nothing to do but acknowledge the melancholy idea that universities are nothing more than temples where money sings to itself.

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