Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Graduate Tax

Berkeley is a different city during the summer. The first week of term transforms campus and town alike, and the streets are now teeming with new and returning students, basking in warm weather after what was apparently a cold summer. Campus comes alive as some 40,000 students and faculty negotiate corridors and footpaths in the country's best public university. And you would never guess, amidst all the sun-drenched geniality, that this is a university that is facing what is probably its gravest challenge: fee hikes for students; budget cuts for departments; the threatened mutilation of the Master Plan, of which it is a key component; the wholesale redefinition of the value of higher education.

For anyone who has had contact with the higher education system, in California as well as nationally in the past years, recent trends in England offer some food for thought. As in the U.S., universities there are strapped for cash. The larger institutions, the Russell Group for example, are chomping at the big, eager to set higher fees to cement their status and exclusivity. And the shambles that is the national economy in Britain means that public funding is liable to drop off sharply under the coalition government, many universities already having experienced some sharp cuts. There are important differences between the status of English and American universities. Funded, as it is, at the state level, higher education in California assumes greater importance (education and prisons are the two largest recipients of money from the state's budget). Until now, there has been a greater willingness in England to milk international students as cash cows than there has been the will to rely on out-of-state fees in California. But that is set to change, and the set of principles being debated in the two places are strikingly similar.

A Liberal Democrat member of the coalition government that emerged after Britain's general election in May, Vince Cable (Business Secretary), has proposed a graduate tax as a partial and long-term antidote to the trials of institutions of higher education in Britain. This has received a mixed reception from his Conservative coalition partners, but even if the graduate tax itself is not adopted, it is a good signpost of the path the Conservatives are likely to take, and so is worth examining (all the more so because a version of the graduate tax has also been endorsed by the supposedly more left-leaning of the Miliband brothers, Ed, one of whom will likely be the next leader of the Labour Party).

Cable, known for his grasp of finance and for talking good sense, is right to acknowledge that there is no catch-all solution to the problems facing higher education in Britain (and the same is true of the U.S.), and also right to look for a solution that would remain effective in the long-term. And it is easy to find yourself nodding along to the idea of the graduate tax. After all, it seems to combine the best of financial solvency and good liberal fairness. Students effectively pay a tax on their degree upon completion, but (and here's the bit that answers criticism of unsustainable fee hikes) they do so according to their earnings. High earners pay a higher tax, low earners relatively less. This is a commonsense approach, meant to assure students, their parents, and critics of fees that, while you can't have something for nothing (never mind that you've paid already in taxes), you pay for it at least partially according to your ability to do so.

Appealing as this sounds, there are serious problems with it. The graduate tax does two things which are seriously troublesome. Firstly, it goes further towards transforming the relationship between student and university into a customer-service provider relationship. There is no longer anything special about knowledge, learning, the exchange of ideas and their ability to empower. Priority is given to the maintenance of a sound economic bottom line, and to providing the customer with a product they can afford (or identifying the customers to which the product can be marketed). But the identity of the person or people writing the cheques is changing too. The burden of payment, even as the sum of that payment rises inexorably, is shifting to students and their parents.

This is closely related to the second problem with Cable's graduate tax (and it not only shows the right-ward shift of the Liberal Democrats, who only one election cycle ago were arguing eloquently for the wholesale scrapping of tuition fees, but gives the lie to David Cameron's 'big society', an idea which never went down with the Tory right to begin with). Public education in Britain, as in California, has long been a project of both the left and of liberals. Ignorance, after all, was one of the five evils the 1942 Beveridge Report declared war on, and this recognition of the relationship between a healthy society and educational opportunity has long been a preoccupation of the Labour and Liberal parties in Britain. And in both places, that education was meant to be free. That central condition has been undone in higher education, more recently in England than in California, but there has long been a rearguard action fought in our state by universities and their supporters against the rise of a Right that has little time for notions of equality and fairness, and which sees free- and critical-thinking as a genuine threat.

No wonder then, that the standard-bearer of the modern Republican Party chose to make an institution like Berkeley his target of choice when running (successfully) to be Governor of California. Ronald Reagan had not just hedonistic hippies in his sights...he was targeting freedoms of dissent and expression, and the very potential of a pluralistic, open society. Successive Republican leaders in California, often with the collusion of business-minded university officials themselves, have worked to transform education into a commodity, one (if one reads only just between the lines of documents like the Commission on the Future of the UC) shorn of moral and social purpose.

The point here, to return to Cable's graduate tax, is that once upon a time higher education was a social good to be given to anyone with the talent, promise, ambition or even desire to take part in what was envisioned to be an empowering and liberating experience. It was to be provided for by the taxpayers of the nation or state, out of a recognition that the education of a young man or woman from the affluent suburbs alongside a poor one from the inner-city and a first-generation Californian or Briton (an education, moreover, that would be in common, on the same campus, in the same classroom), was good not only for those three students, but for the collective, and for the future of that society.

But a tax on a degree, however fair it seeks to be, shatters this remarkable vision. It is a blow directed squarely at the idea of a collective good and concomitant responsibility. It throws families and students back on their own resources and puts the individual at the centre of a social and financial whirlwind, at the mercy of a developing educational marketplace (UC Regent Richard Blum, Senator Feinstein's husband, is a typically hypocritical investor in some of these ventures) that is as hostile towards moralising as it is towards those who can't afford to be in the market.

Vince Cable's tax plan might make good economic sense. It might be exactly what one would expect from a modern liberal, in that it seeks to walk the fine line between fairness and economic solvency. But it is an answer to a financial problem, which should be secondary to the deeper, more significant social and moral question-mark hanging over the future of higher education. It is an answer which turns the public university into some kind of tawdry department store or shopping mall, and which disconnects these remarkable institutions, imperfect though they be, from what has been their public moral, social and collective endeavour. We must hope that the Labour Party and those Liberal Democrats who are frustrated with their strange coalition partners call Cable out on the flaws of his plan. And that the supporters of public higher education in California mount a stiff resistance to attempts to further commercialise colleges and universities while detaching them from their historic mission.

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