As the political battle over university tuition fees intensifies, the chasm between the two main parties has never been wider, according to a prominent academic and writer.
Dr Joanna Williams, who lectures in the higher education department at the University of Kent, says that while Labour offers a clear policy to scrap the £9,250 annual the Conservative government is merely proposing a review of fees.
This week saw Prime Minister Theresa May visit Derby and the studios of This Morning to announce the review.
“Despite Theresa May’s best efforts to appear alternately outraged and sympathetic, this ended with no clearer idea of either what she thinks about university funding or what the government plans to do,” Dr Williams said.
“May’s statements of the obvious were a virtue-signalling cover for her lack of announcement. Unlike the Labour Party, the Conservatives have no plans to scrap fees.
“There are arguments to be had about the affordability and motivation behind Labour’s proposals, but at least, on this issue if not others, it has a clear policy. All May had to announce was a year-long review. That’s right. This tedious discussion about student fees is set to drift on and on.”
Labour’s policy of scrapping tuition fees for those in tertiary education is credited with the party’s unexpected success in the June general election.
Queues outside the polling station at the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus suggested record numbers of students based in the city voted, helping to narrowly elect Rosie Duffield as the constituency’s first Labour MP.
But Dr Williams argues that the bigger debate to be had in higher education lies the value of university degree itself and how that relates to the price of paying for it.
She said: “The financial worth of a product that isn’t a product, an investment that may or may not carry a return, an immeasurable, unquantifiable experience that may or may not be satisfactory, is impossible to determine.
“Tuition fees were trebled to £9,000 a year in 2012 and have since increased in line with inflation, yet this price bears no relation to either the cost or worth of higher education.
“But instead of discussing the purpose and value of universities, we have interminable discussions about the price of a degree.”
Dr Williams also argues that governments have lost sight of universities’ primary purpose to educate and have instead mutated into vehicles to promote social and political programmes.
She went on: “The advancement of learning and promoting the general powers of the mind are no longer seen as sufficient aims in themselves. In the absence of an intrinsic intellectual purpose, higher education searches in vain for a justification.
“Successive policy reviews have latched on to individual employability, future graduate salaries, social mobility, and global citizenship as the aims of a university.
“Some go so far as to argue for social quotas for every university. This would complete the transformation of higher education into a politically correct finishing school, a place where working-class and upper-class young adults are made to rub shoulders until each has sufficiently imbibed proscribed values.”
As well as teaching, Dr Williams is the education editor at current affairs magazine Spiked. Her latest book is called Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars.