Student Fees, Common Goods and Moral Imagination

“Why should those who are less well off subsidize the education of people who’ll earn a lot more money as a result of getting a degree?”

An interesting parallel to the issue raised by this question can be found in the relationship of smokers to the NHS. Why should non-smokers help ‘subsidize’ the additional health costs of those who are knowingly damaging that health and increasing thus increasing their burden on the tax payer? In this question a process is identified (treatment of smokers through a public health service) with differential substantive outcomes for two discrete groups: smokers and non-smokers. The relationship is seen to be unfair because the former group unambiguously benefits from the process (as a result of actions which are unnecessary and avoidable) while the latter group unambiguously loses (as they contribute equally to a common good while others draw on that good much more than they do). Everyone contributes but one group takes more than their fair share.

Obviously there’s limits to the parallel but I think it’s interesting because it highlights the force which the idea of more than their fare share possesses, as well the rhetorical consequences which can flow from personal identification. The two subject positions loaded into the question (smokers and non-smokers) create a tempting avenue for cashing out the moral issue in personalised terms e.g. “why should I, as a non-smoker, fund the health care of you, as a smoker, when we both make a contribution through taxation on the same basis yet you’re likely to take so much more from it than I will?” I think this identification can just as easily be tacit or explicit. It also often won’t find expression in political debate because not everyone always expresses their personal commitments when arguing with others. Nor do I think that all – or even a majority – necessarily engage in this sort of personal identification with regards to the smoking/NHS debate. All I want to claim is that for all moral debates about social issues: some people do, some of the time and that this is not some psychological fact extrinsic to the ensuing debate but rather partly constitutive of its form.

The  degree to which certain social issues permit of personal identification should be key to understanding what’s going on with debates surrounding them them. It’s through such identification (as individual subjects ‘step into’ and perform moral membership of a group) that the passions are mobilized and abstract debates become social conflicts. In making this claim I’m drawing on Alisdair Macintyre’s understanding of moral particularly: its our concrete relations and involvements which give meaning and force to our abstract deliberations. Basically the question I’m trying to ask is: how does the discursive construction of a political issue impact upon the way in which particular individuals morally reason about it? One huge way is through the possibilities for personal identification it offers. These in turn shape the way the individuals sees the debate as a moral issue e.g. if they actively identify with the non-smokers then the issue becomes one of ‘fairness’ between two groups. As such it’s also important to understanding how the debate plays itself out intra-personally and interpersonally (with the latter going hand-in-hand with change or stasis in its discursive construction).

The number of times I’ve read some form of the opening question on my morbidly fascinated trawls through comment forums leads me to think that the student fees debate permits of strong personal identifications which are shaping the way the issue plays itself out. Namely that some people can’t get over the sense that students are taking more than their fair share of finite public resources at a time of crisis, benefitting from doing so and then asking that others who won’t benefit continue to pay for those who do. Also moral evaluations of protests flow from this position simply because it’ll be a primary interpretive standpoint for those who see the issue in this way.

Although recognizing that this is easier said than done I think it’s really important to move the debate beyond student-fees (not least of all because it’s only one aspects of the government’s HE agenda). This creates an obvious opening for people to personally identify against students, as the individualized financial issue of fees also leads people to see the general debate in individualized and financial terms relating to post-graduation salary gains as well as costs from fees. Perhaps if the issue was presented as ‘access to higher education’  and its generalised social benefits, it creates an opening for people to identify in their capacity as parents (and citizens!). We need to be making a non-instrumental case for the public university, the social benefits of which aren’t reducible to individual profit & loss, as well as how such a public system can act as a driver of social mobility. In doing so it might be possible to create opportunities for identification in the debate which relate to ‘everyone’ and so avoid it being reduced to the comparison of sectional interests.