David Willetts, Karl Marx and Higher Education in the UK

The probable increase of tuition fees in Universities is back in the news. Our students, for the past few years, have been burdened with additional fees that leave them financially crippled by the time they finish their studies. Their debts amount up to 20.000 pounds just for their undergraduate education. This is certainly an inauspicious start in life!

The new Minister of Education, David Willetts, positioned himself firmly on the side of the people who believe that the current system is not sustainable and that the University fees should increase (even though he has not stated it explicitly). Yesterday BBC radio dedicated several hours on the debate concerning the issue at hand. I listened carefully to some of the programs and came to the conclusion that a) Conservatives wanted the State to stop subsidising degrees, while b) Leftists promoted a “free education for all” scheme. For the record, I am fully aware that this is a gross generalisation on my part and that there were many shades of grey in between.

David Willetts may not be a Leftist but he is certainly a Marxist! Ever since the Communist Manifesto has been signed and published, a “rumour” went around that Marxism proclaimed the need of free Education for all children. In all fairness, there is one very vague line in the Manifesto that declares a similar idea. However, no further explanation or clarification is given.

Only later, Marx had the opportunity to expand his views on the topic in more detail. Specifically, in his Speech on General Education at the National Workingmen Association in 1869 he agreed that education might be national without being governmental. The government had to appoint inspectors to make certain that laws were obeyed. Education was also to be compulsory. His views on the subject are presented more fully in 1875 in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. He states that “If in some states of the latter country (Germany) higher education institutions are also “free”, that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts.” And he continues: “”Elementary education by the state” is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.” It is obvious that Marx did not approve of free education because this situation would have benefitted the rich more than the poor. Have you noticed any similarities with the intended policies of the new British government or should I point them out?

So, where does this leave us? If we are to follow the ideas of Karl Marx and David Willetts, then we should allow for the imposition of higher fees in the Universities, as long as these are coupled with generous grants for working class students. If we assume that 25% of the students who want to enter a University program come from a disadvantaged background, then their education should be free. The grants could be paid with the help of the rich students (for the sake of argument let us assume that these are around 25% of the population), who will be responsible for the payment of the entire fee. The remaining 50 % of the students (who would probably belong to the middle class) will pay only half of the fee, while the other half could be substituted through grants and loans. This idea is very rough and needs to be explored further. Even so, I decided to bring it forward as food for thought.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant

1 Comment

  1. Interesting perspective – and one that is very surprising. Nice find!

    It is of course a fair point to say that tax-supported degrees mean that everybody pays for the education of the privileged.

    On the other hand, a completely free ‘fees market’ will cause problems with social mobility.

    Something like the US Ivy League system (where you pay anything between nothing to very high fees, depending on ability to pay) might be worth considering, perhaps.

    Personally, I’d also like to see them consider a graduate tax – including everybody, especially those who got their degrees for free, with good maintenance grants attached, and also reaped better benefits from that because competition wasn’t as fierce.

    Surely, such a graduate tax would only be fair? If we ask the present generation to repay their debt to the state for funding their HE, why not all those of us who got there earlier, and a lot more cheaply?

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