And lo, another great socialist shibboleth is cast off. Half a century after Lord Robbins proposed that university education in the UK should be free to anyone capable of benefiting from it, the descendants of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith are back, applying free-market economics to education. But could their triumph also be their folly? Could today’s reformers have lost their liberalism and forgotten the principles of laissez-faire?
The government’s plan, simply put, is to withdraw almost all of the block grant that it awards to universities to support their teaching, about £4 billion a year. As Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, wrote in the London Review of Books last month: “This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.”
But this is even more than an overturning of socialism and the post-war consensus: it is a reversal of the principles of classical liberalism and laissez-faire economics.
Mill says unambiguously in Principles of Political Economy (1848) that education “is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for its people”, something “to which the reasons of the non-interference principle do not necessarily or universally extend”.
Education, then, is not a realm where the consumer should be anointed king. Rather, Mill says: “In the matter of education, the intervention of government is justifiable, because the case is not one in which the interests and judgement of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the commodity.”
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