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Tuition fees and professional ethics

December 15, 2010

So it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the government has recently won a vote to increase the level of tuition fees that universities are allowed to charge students, as a response to the Browne Report into higher education . This has resulted in protests in cities across the UK with many (thanks to a small minority) turning violent. But is this a subject with which businesses, professionals and professional organisations should be concerned? Here I try to outline some reasons why it is.

A summary of what is really at stake in the review of higher education funding is found in Stefan Collini’s excellent article in the London Review of Books. Most of the focus, in the protests and the media, has been on the finances of individual students; for example, a useful summary of these effects has been provided by the BBC . But important as these questions are, and as Collini points out, the focus on the finances of individual students has masked a more fundamental effect of the proposed changes to funding – the withdrawal of (almost all) public contribution to higher education. Under the current system students pay some of the costs of their courses, with the rest paid by government from taxpayers’ money and allocated by the universities. Under the new system, Collini says:

“Browne proposes […] a system in which the universities are providers of services, students are the (rational) consumers of those services, and the state plays the role of the regulator.”

There are several implications of Browne’s proposals. One is that that the benefits of higher education only accrue to the students themselves, and not to society in general; another is that these benefits are to be measured in financial terms. Thus, if students can work out which courses will provide them with the greatest financial gain in the long run (which they might reasonably be expected to do) then the market system will ensure an appropriate allocation of resources – universities will be paid appropriately for what they deliver, this will lead them to deliver the ‘best’ courses, and students will get what they pay for.

Insofar as these reforms produce students more focused on the acquisition of practical skills we might think that they should be welcomed by business and the professions. However, there is significant cause for concern. In purely practical terms, it is clearly not true that society gains no benefit from higher education. If that benefit diverges from the benefit that accrues to individual students (which it seems reasonable to think it might – what would it be like to live in a society in which no-one studied the arts and humanities?), then decisions about which degrees to take and offer will be sub-optimal – in economic terms, externalities will exist. Equally, it would be a very cynical person who claimed that the only benefit individuals gain from an education is financial. To put complete control of the structure of our higher education system into the hands of soon-to-be university students and to tell them to make their decisions based on their own financial interests is simply socially inefficient. We all lose.

But the concerns do not end there. The practicing of the professions has a long tradition of being built around ethical principles; and as I have discussed elsewhere there are striking similarities in this respect between being a professional and being a business leader. This tradition is, in part, a response to the recognition that professionals occupy a privileged and trusted place in society. They have a responsibility to use their knowledge and power in a way that recognises this and takes society’s interests into account. However, if students of the professions are encouraged to believe that the benefits of their education are simply the return they are due on the financial investment that they make then this link between the professions and society comes under pressure. If they have bought a position of privilege in society, why should they not be allowed to exploit it? The very idea of ‘professional ethics’ is threatened.

The separation of the considered interests of society from the decisions governing the management of its higher education sector is in no-one’s interest. Given that these are decisions that affect us all it is incumbent on all of us to participate in them. And given both their relevance to business and the professions, and the relative power of these organised interests, there is even more reason for professionals to be concerned with recent developments and to have a voice in the decisions that are being taken.

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