"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education," Mark Twain famously quipped. He may have died over 100 years ago, but Twain's gag goes to the very axis of the contemporary student fees debate.
With around 70 per cent of universities expected to charge the maximum £9,000 fees from September 2012, and with universities dropping the variety of courses they offer (London Met are jettisoning some two-thirds of undergraduate programmes), we are coming to ask the question: just what use is an education anyway?
In truth, we are breaking education from learning -- splitting it into personal enhancement and a knowledge commodity to be cashed in. Learning for learning's sake is now the dewy-eyed pursuit of the super-rich. The academy doors are closing to all but the professionals. Now, one must choose between cultural achievements and economic wagers. We are seeing that battle being fought at this very moment and it will change universities forever.
It would be ahistorical to argue that this is a recent development. From the nineteenth century, the move towards specialised professions has dominated university, and the primacy of "careers" over education is hardly new. Yet, with the increase in fees and the cuts to funding, this professional culture is choking higher education in its broad form. While £40,000 is a disgusting amount to pay for a university education, it is still unclear whether the new fees will dissuade prospective students or not. The wider issue is that the government and some sections of the media are saying that arts and humanities subjects have no value unless they generate a direct economic contribution to the country.
Stewart Lee has recounted a story about Margaret Thatcher visiting his university in the 1980s. When a student told her she was studying Norse literature, Thatcher said: "What a luxury!" This is a view that many people share, and it is utterly wrong. Seeking to enrich ourselves as individuals and as a society through the awareness of other cultures, their language and their histories is one of the most profound things we can do. To say it is a "luxury" unless it has an potent, professional, cash value is short-sighted, offensive and historically bankrupt. In times of austerity, the public does not like to see the government funding degrees in fine art or French poetry, but they are as crucial as finance, law or engineering.
The effect of this is that the prospective student will be offered less choice at university: gone will be the "luxuries" of arts, classics and film; in will come the business managements, the statistics and the marketings. Universities will shift in this direction whether students arrive with bags of money or not. But those who do graduate will increasingly do so with degrees in these professional subjects precisely because reading Homer does not, in our scornful materialistic anti-culture, educate you in the right way.
The graduate job market will be awash with young people who, having paid more for the privilege, will all look exactly like each other, with the same skills and the same academic experience. This will have a knock-on effect for further education. At precisely the time when young people are struggling to decide on their futures, they are being ushered into bankable courses: law, maths, accounting -- these will count for something, son.
The already hefty pressure on A Level students to pick courses that will look good to university admissions panels (and beyond) will be exacerbated even further -- how many students will start to see English literature as self-indulgent dross, classical civilisation as a scentless fart? Learning and careers are being pitched against each other. We students, from school-leavers to postgraduates, are no longer scholars but consumers; we are customers, not thinkers. The degree is a bargaining chip, an entrance fee, a gift voucher -- and the teaching university a mere production line.
Josh White is a freelance journalist and writes at www.joshwhitesays.co.uk