Again, for all of Saint Vince's faux reluctance the government's enthusiasm for dismembering the university system and organising it along the lines of the oh-so successful American model is justified by the deficit. Once again it is the cover for an experiment in neoliberal social engineering. And like similar policies in the past, and quite apart from the social consequences, the effect this could have on the profile of British capitalism is potentially catastrophic. In his recent book, The Writing on the Wall: China in the 21st Century, Will Hutton argued that the key advantage Western economies have over China is their 'soft' cultural and institutional infrastructure, on which successful capitalist economies depend. As technological innovation, entertainment, knowledge and other forms of "intangible" commodities become more important for global capitalist production the greater the advantage accruing to those countries with large further and higher education sectors. From the standpoint of British capital, the government's attack on higher education threatens the preeminent place it occupies in the global knowledge economy. While science and advanced manufacturing are to be protected by subsidy, the so-called soft subjects which sustain strategically important entertainment and creative industries, as well as providing the kinds of transferable analytical skills essential for any advanced economy are threatened by the government's reckless plans. In plain economic terms, market share and billions of pounds are at risk.
One argument advanced by opponents of free HE, whether Liberal, Labour or Tory is how unfair it is for the poor to subsidise the education of people who, on average, will earn far more over their working lives (curiously, the logic of this argument is never deployed in relation to corporation tax cuts and tax breaks for business). This is an example of bourgeois economism, of deploying a "common sense" that appears to stand up for the economically weak while reinforcing a socially regressive agenda.
If you want to get all Marxist about it - and I do - capital gains far more from a well educated workforce than the economic rewards accruing to individual workers. As regular readers and anyone with a passing acquaintance with Marx know, the ultimate source of profit lies in the difference between the amount of money paid out as a wage (determined by what is necessary to reproduce a worker at a historically and socially given physical and cultural level) and the total wealth they generate over the course of the working week - this difference accruing to the employer. From this perspective, qualifications serve to make available workers with certain sets of skills to fill particular niches in the social division of labour. Regardless of their wage, salaries and other privileges, graduates are as economically exploited as any other section of the working class.
Until the abolition of free education by Tony Blair, HE funding from general taxation reflected this (to an extent). Capital profits from a well educated workforce, and so capital paid. Under the Tory/LibDem-endorsed Browne report, capital will will receive all of those benefits without having to pay for the cost - in effect, students will be picking up the tab and subsidising their future employers.
As with any other measure being pushed by the Tories and LibDems, it is a statement of intent. It can be stopped by mobilising as wider a coalition as possible against the cuts. If, as the political elite like to think, a new spirit of cooperation and working together is abroad, then let our movement be the repository of it. Let us turn their slogan of 'all in it together' into our own. Students, public sector workers, the elderly, parents, public-dependent private businesses: this is the vast constituency the government are determined to clobber. It is the labour movement's challenge to bring it together and give it shape and a sense of direction. Because if we don't, these counter-reforms, this decimation of the social wage is a recipe for generations of misery. It's not much, but where HE is concerned there is a march on 10th November. Details here.