An M.Sc. in Markets

 I’ll get to the humanitarianism and migration later this week, I promise.  But tonight, a post on my other favourite mobility: social mobility. And Oxbridge. And the British Higher Education system.   A combination guaranteed to make blood boil and liberals rant.
In the past week, Damien Shannon has confirmed he is suing St. Hugh’s College Oxford for ‘selecting by wealth’.  The Observer today announces ‘1000 postgraduates a year ‘too poor’ to take up Oxford place’.  It’s this second headline that leaves me a little uneasy. For Shannon’s point is a much narrower one, and I think it’s at risk of being used to push a wider agenda that actually obscures the real malaise eating away British Higher Education.
There’s undoubted merit in Shannon’s claim that – given he could pay the fees – there’s little justice in University paternalism refusing him a place on the grounds they should judge what constitute an acceptable budget. Full information regarding likely expense: sure. A warning that unforeseen economic crisis will not lead to special academic treatment: absolutely.  Even make self-funding students sigh a disclaimer that they can have no expectation of emergency support.  But post-graduate students are independent adults. If they make the grade and can pay the fees, they should have right of entry.
On to the Observer’s claim – those 1000 students. The piece that follows conflates the question of asking for liquid guarantees to cover projected living costs – indefensible – and the inability to pay fees.*  I have every sympathy with students who can’t afford to pay the sums demanded to study beyond undergraduate level.  But it seems to me that by blaming Oxford, we avoid confronting the wider fact that in our market-based semi-privatised higher-education system, you buy a service.  If you can’t pay, you aren’t let in.  This is not news: it’s a nasty reality.
For this market absolutely selects by wealth – and will continue to do so even if Oxford no longer demands to see proof you can pay your rent check.  My own M.Sc. cohort (Cambridge) and the ones I’ve taught (Oxford and LSE) have been mostly North-American and European — and above all, wealthy. Scholarships are rare gold dust.
At one level, then, it seems obvious and right to call for more funding for postgraduates.  Yet I worry that in two ways, this campaign doesn’t catch what’s wrong in our Universities.  First, proposals for a few dozen means-tested scholarships are a sop rather than a solution. They confirm the idea that there’s a market in Higher Education, albeit one that should allow a few subsidised entry.   But if post-graduate education is now necessary – the claim which is frequently made in the face of rising graduate numbers, and rising graduate unemployment – then shouldn’t it be a public good?
I’d argue it’s a variation this second question we should be focusing on:  what’s post-graduate education for?  When is it necessary? The danger in focusing the debate on the right to an M.Sc. or an M.A is that it suggests that battles over access to undergraduate education have already been fought, and also ignores the fact that much of the rush into post-graduate qualifications isn’t driven by love of learning, but by the failures at undergraduate level where expansion and marketization since the 1990s have not delivered. We should be fighting not for a few means-tested scholarships for M.Sc. students, but a fundamental recognition of University education as a public good – which might involve trading the language of expansion for one in which smaller numbers can access meaningful funding and high-quality courses.
Yet that is a conversation neither Government (nor Opposition) nor Universities wish to have.  Market ideals permeate political strategies around higher education. And when it comes to M.Sc.’s, universities certainly know what they’re good for.  Money.  The M.Sc. is the University cash cow. It is – very often – a poor-quality, high-volume product.  I know students from my own M.Phil still bitter nearly a decade later about a reality, which didn’t live up to its promises.  Keeping post-graduate education largely private (excluding the research-training streams) avoids some rather awkward conversations about value for money.  Caveat Emptor.
So, yes, be angry about Oxford’s rules – and fret about the lack of state-funded M.As.  But the fact students are ‘too poor’ for postgraduate studies should demand a much more direct confrontation with the reality of how market logic has permeated higher education.  Means-testing scholarships circumvent  the wider structural inequalities for a few: they will not offer a solution for the many.
*It also fails to mention that the overseas students whom we occasionally grant a visa to come here (55% of all students on a full-time taught M.Sc.) already have to meet stringent income requirements, an undoubted discrimination by wealth.
But that’s another post…

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