The great thing about markets, we are told, is that we are all free to spend our hard-earned money how we see fit and that this consumer freedom represents the only freedom worth having.
A new Rolls Royce costs £200,000. A new Mercedes 2011 E200 CGI £40,000.
If I earn £25,000 a year (roughly the UK average salary) and saved 50% of my earnings it would take 16 years to save up £200,000. To do it I would have to live in the meanest of accommodation, eat frugally, buy no new clothes, have no holidays etc.etc. Even then by the time I had the £200K, inflation would mean that a roller was at least £250,000. So in reality I simply could never get the money together to buy a new Roller.
What about the Merc? Well, if I saved 50% of my salary it would only take 4 years to get the money together. So if I really wanted one and was willing to sacrifice 4 years of my life to achieving it, then I probably could buy a brand new Merc, even on the average UK salary of £25,000 a year. I am certainly legally free to do so.
What if I earned £1.35 million basic and a bonus of £2.3 million – as Eric Daniels the CEO of loss making Lloyds Bank does? Well, a new Roller would represent less than 5% of my total remuneration and after I’d spent it I’d still have £3.45 million left. So if I bring home £3.65 million buying a new Roller is a financial irrelevance that requires literally no sacrifice from me – it’s a drop in the ocean. So I am both legally free to buy the Roller and free from any sacrifice required do it.
This is all bloody obvious I hear you all cry! So what? Well, this pricing logic of freedom is now being applied to the education of our children.
Anyone who can get into University can borrow the money from the State to pay their University fees and living expenses while studying. And everyone pays that loan back on the same terms over the same 30 year period. What could be fairer than that?
It has yet to be decided if the children of the rich will be allowed to pay off the debt early, or even pay their fees upfront and not enter the loan system at all. We’ll have to wait and see if the ConDems will be able to persuade their rich party supporters that a compulsory enforced debt will be a requirement for everyone going to University – even the children of the rich. I wouldn’t hold your breath because that doesn’t even make much sense to me!
The only possible moral justification for distributing resources on the basis of one’s ability to pay is that those who are rich deserve to be rich, and those that are poor deserve to be poor.
Bill Gates famously said “if you are born poor it’s not your fault, but if you die poor it definitely is.” Apart from the fact that Al Capone and the Medellín Cartel would almost certainly agree with this self-serving bullshit, there is overwhelming evidence that if you are born poor the chances are you will die poor. “The poorer a person is growing up, the smaller their chances to get a good education”, so the sociologist Professor Dr. Michael Hartmann of the TU (Technical University) Darmstadt, Germany. (Sorry, link in German only)
Dr. Hartmann makes the point that when growing up in poverty one does not learn the necessary business-language and misses out on a general education. His research demonstrates that these social factors are far more important in determining success or failure than the inherited intelligence or talent of a person.
Conversely if you are born rich you will almost certainly die rich. Why are people born rich? Because they inherit wealth. Even if one accepted that people were entitled to extensive wealth in their own lifetime on the basis of their own hard-work and talent, on what moral basis are their children entitled to live a privileged life? The world is full of feckless, talentless, morally bankrupt rich kids.
If Daddy earns £3.65 million he must somehow be worth that, he must deserve it, surely? And conversely the 8 year old child working in an Indian sweatshop to make trainers for Daddy’s girl, surely they must deserve to live like that……….?
Sooooooo, back to the main point. A graduation debt of £50,000 to a student whose father earns even £100,000 is an entirely different matter to that of a student from a family where parental earnings are less than £30,000. And once we get into the realms of those earning over £200,000 a year the debt of £50,000 becomes less and less significant.
Sure, there are means-tested bursaries that aim to alleviate this problem but these reduce the status of the student from the poor background from that of a citizen with entitlements to that of a beggar, begging for the scraps ‘trickling down’ from the rich man’s table.
A free university education open to all students able to qualify has since WWII been regarded as a right in this country. It has now been reduced to a contingent gift.
And this fact will affect life choices of the poor far more than the rich. If Daddy can cover your debt, or you are going to inherit substantial sums later in life these debts are insignificant factors. For the rest of us they are life-defining.
I am a plumbers son from Coventry and in 1976 I was the first member of my family ever to go to University – I now teach in a University. My daughter carried on the tradition in 2009 becoming an under-graduate at Sheffield University. But my 17 yr old son, whose first year at Uni would be 2012, has already decided that a life-time of debt is simply too high a cost to pay for the debased form of University education that is now being offered in most of our HE institutions.
There are those in this country who liked and benefited from an elitist education system based on wealth and privilege and regret the democratisation of the system and are trying to socially engineer us back to the pre WWII era when Universities were only for public school boys and some kinds of scientific geniuses.
If they succeed it will be one of the most appalling and tragic reverses in the social progress of this country.
I Am Not a Number