As do so many of the greatest stories of the age, this one begins with the incessant and unchecked onward march of the neoliberal economic consensus. Or something. If that’s not the way to get a reader interested, I don’t know what is. More specifically in this case, it’s that the tuition fee system, first introduced by a Labour government in 1998, makes university and further education a product. It’s gone from being the freebie sample you pick up on the way into the chocolate shop of life to being one of the many aisles in the supermarket (probably aisle 17: detergents, washing powders, fabric softeners). Whilst previous generations would idly take whichever chocolate they fancied, skipping gaily into the chocolate shop with a “who cares if it’s rubbish? It’s free!”, our generation has a very different deal.
We’re forced to stand in the aisle of university and college courses, lined up in UCAS typography and work out the value of each and every course. What are the teaching hours like? Will I pay £200 an hour (or so) to have my delicatessen gourmet one-on-one teaching experience in an arts subject at Oxford or Cambridge, or £12.50 an hour (or so) to wile away my days in a lab doing something something science something at something something Russell Group University?
As the debt stacks up year on year, the question becomes only more pressing. Each teaching hour must be as efficient, useful, and learn-y as possible: you’ve got to get your money’s worth. If your supervisor is five minutes late, that’s a whole £16 worth (or so). As he saunters in, clutching the bumbly sides of his mid-blue bland corduroy jacket, muttering “something something bike accident something something” meekly, you rise to your feet in defiant anguish. “You don’t understand Professor X, that’s like two whole espresso martinis at [insert favourite upmarket cocktail bar here].” Professor X, raised on the good old-fashioned system in which higher education was free and merely to be in the presence of such genius was deemed ‘value’ enough, merely looks at you blankly.