Looking at the debate over UK protests over the tripling of tuition fees, it seems to me that this is an occasion where realistic utopianism (I’m paraphrasing Erik Olin Wright here) is needed, and is currently in short supply. The present ways in which modern societies determine the life choices available to 20 year olds are unsatisfactory and inequitable, and the British system is (or seems from a distance) to be more inequitable than many, perhaps most. So, defending that system against change, even change that will make things worse, is difficult and problematic. Rather than ask what incremental reforms might make things better, it seems like a good idea to ask how we might design a set of institutions from scratch, and then think about the implications for existing systems.
My starting point is that, in a modern society and economy, nearly everyone needs to finish high school and the great majority need further education (academic, professional/technical or vocational) beyond that, if they are to thrive and prosper. So, rather than thinking about universities as the destination of a select few, and then about various second-best alternatives for others, we should be starting from the view of post-secondary education as a universal service like school education or health services. That does not mean that everyone should get the same post-secondary education (any more than everyone should get the same health services), but it does mean a presumption that everyone should have access to educational resources of similar quality.
That’s radically different from a system where historically-determined differences in endowments and funding drive massive inequality in resources which in turn produce and perpetuate inequality in outcomes. This inequality is most evident in the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge graduates among the elite, but it is replicated all the way down the higher education hierarchy.
Producing a universal system would entail a substantial shift in resources over a long period towards social groups and regions that have been poorly served in the past. It would I think (though there are plenty of cultural subtleties here to which I’m not attuned) ultimately imply an end to the presumption that university is somewhere you go away to, and its replacement with a presumption that high-quality education at all levels is something that should be available wherever you live.
If we have a universal or near-universal system, it’s natural to start on the basis of funding through the tax system. Things aren’t quite so easy in the more realistic case where a majority get post-school education, but a minority do not. Here, there are various options for avoiding the inequitable outcome where the minority (probably poorer on average) pay for benefits they don’t receive. One is the set of ideas that have been canvassed in the current debate, including graduate taxes, income-contingent loans and so on.
The alternative is some version of the proposal put forward by Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman in the US a while back of making a universal grant, available to everyone at age 20. I’m inclined to a somewhat more paternalistic view than their suggestion of a no-strings grant (partly from considerations of political realism, to which utopians should pay attention, I think). I’d prefer to limit the use of the grant to a range of purposes that are likely to yield life benefits (education, buying a house, starting a small business) and, until it was used, invest it and give the beneficiaries the proceeds every year.
fn1. The UK system is notable, like the US (Ivy League) and France (Grandes Ecoles) for the existence of a set of elite institutions serving a tiny fraction of the population. Other systems (for example Australia’s) have a hierarchy, but without this top level. I’m not well-informed enough to say which pattern prevails elsewhere, but Wikipedia suggests that Germany may be trying to replace a relatively egalitarian system with one more focused on excellence. I hope German and other non-Anglo readers can give some better information.