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  1. Diary
23 August 2023

The case for student salaries

Also this week: the unfairness of A-levels and ministers who say results don’t matter.

By Lorna Finlayson

Children are often told: “Life isn’t fair.” It’s interesting that the line only gets used on children. Maybe people assume that they won’t notice what a stupid argument it is but I suspect virtually all children find it very stupid indeed.

I sometimes think that the adults are right, if not in quite the way they think. Their intended meaning seems to be: this is the way it is, so suck it up. Life is unfair both in the sense that there are many injustices, and also in the sense that arbitrariness and inconsistency are an inescapable part of it. I find myself thinking this when my undergraduate students complain of unfairness. Not that they shouldn’t. In the marketised hellscape that is university today, it is perfectly rational for them to push every available button that might yield compensatory rewards. One marker was harsher than another, one lecturer was off sick: it’s not fair. But this kind of unevenness isn’t possible to eliminate, however you try.

The bigger problem is that the whole system is rotten. It is perhaps not an accident that underlings of various kinds are encouraged to think in terms of “fairness”. The effect is to narrow the focus of grievance. Students do not often complain that the fees system is unfair. Instead they complain that they are not getting their money’s worth – a charge easily deflected onto staff – or that someone else is getting a better deal. “Life isn’t fair” could be a reminder to broaden our view. 

[See also: Education’s inequality curse]

The results are in

A-level results have been announced, and it’s not surprising that students are unhappy. The proportion of top grades (As and A*s) has seen its sharpest drop ever. The government argues the plunge was necessary to bring results back to a pre-Covid norm after more forgiving methods of assessment during the pandemic led to a spike in top grades. In other words, suck it up.

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But the abrupt reversal has angered many students, who point out that they would have achieved higher marks for the same performance if their exams had been last year. They have suffered all the disruption of the pandemic (they were unable to sit their GCSEs, for example), but without any of the compensation. Yet if the government had waited until next year, the same argument could still be made. Those whose final exams coincided with lockdowns might then protest that the mitigations introduced for them, the most directly affected cohort, should not be extended to others.

The truth is that all assessment is unfair. Worse than the drop in top grades is the widening attainment gap between private- and state-school students. The normal we are supposedly returning to was never fair, if by fair you mean significantly responsive to need and ability rather than class advantage. You can’t achieve that by fine-tuning the assessment procedures.

Adult hypocrisy knows no bounds

If the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, was “adding insult to injury” when she told school leavers that nobody would be interested in their exam results in ten years’ time, Rishi Sunak added insult to insult by retweeting Jeremy Clarkson’s humble-bragging message to the kids: “It’s not the end of the world if your A-level results aren’t what you’d hoped for. I got a C and 2 Us and here I am today with my own brewery.” The PM’s added claim that “there are lots of options available to you” rings hollow when you factor in that Clarkson went to Repton and Sunak to Winchester. Options are very different for people of different backgrounds.

But arguably the real insult is to tell students that grades don’t matter too much after all, having told them the exact opposite for most of their lives. Which is it?

[See also: Universities are making us stupid]

Making school pay

According to the theologian and philosopher Ivan Illich and the writer Edgar Z Friedenberg, the consensus on the necessity of schools is the product of circular logic. As Illich puts it: “Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools.” Schools are necessary not in the sense that they impart skills needed for future success, but in the sense that society makes economic success contingent on the ability to produce certificates – a “conspiracy”, as Friedenberg dubs it.

So what is it all for? Schools do, Friedenberg says, perform a “useful function” from the point of view of business. They instil “certain characteristics that are marketable” and “allow you to work comfortably within the corporation”. But by continually presenting school and university as an “investment” in one’s future, it is possible to avoid the question of paying students “for what is, after all, a form of involuntary servitude”.

Now there’s an idea.

Lorna Finlayson is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Essex

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect