Daniel McIlhiney | Opinion
A lot of proponents of capitalism struggle with the question of ‘Does capitalism benefit students?’ When I started thinking about writing this article, I began by approaching a friend of mine who works with various politicians on the promotion of capitalism and western values and I asked him this question. His initial response was ‘Probably not. Capitalism will say, “Pay for it yourself!”. And I think this is the attitude of a lot of students in the western world – that capitalism has no benefit for them while they are studying.’ This anti-capitalism sentiment has led to the rise of socialist ideals in younger people and the rise of the likes of Jeremy Corbyn with just under 70% of under 25s voting for Corbyn in the 2017 election. And it’s understandable with headlines like ‘Labour pledges to abolish tuition fees as early as autumn 2017’ from the Guardian; we all remember the flood of support that the Liberal Democrats received when Nick Clegg made a similar promise (which he promptly broke) in 2010. But is it true that students have to wait for the benefits of capitalism until they leave university? Perhaps not.
Most of us take it for granted that we can choose whether or not to go to university in the first place. When we reach the age of 18 we are offered the chance of choosing to continue education at a higher level or to step out into the working world. The very fact that we have this opportunity is down to capitalism and the freedom of choice and aspiration that it provides. We can decide, for ourselves which we believe will be more personally beneficial to us. We can decide to start earning straight away, or we can decide to postpone our earning potential, usually because we believe that we will earn more with either a degree or internship under our belts and the very fact that we have that potential to earn more than our parents or more than our contemporaries is down to capitalism and the Judeo-Christian values of freedom on which the ideology is built.
Imagine if there was a popular board game designed to simulate life. The first choice you can make in this board game is whether or not to go to university, so you can either begin earning straight away or pay your money to have a potentially higher-paying job later. Now, imagine if you will, that choice is taken away from you, that you no longer have the free agency to decide how you play the game: you would probably begin to care less about that decision. Now imagine that all the cards that gave you a career paid you the same wage and that all the cards for a house cost the same, you would probably begin to care about the whole game a lot less very quickly. Your whole enjoyment of the game is built upon your ability to choose and the opportunity of winning.
Now, if we move away from that analogy, we will find the same thing in our own lives our ability to choose and to innovate, combined with the potential to ‘win’ is what drives not only us, but also our entire society. Without a dream or a vision, we become demotivated, disenfranchised and depressed. The potential to ‘win’ and the potential to ‘lose’ is what causes a society to flourish and an individual to feel fulfilled; without it we can only hope to achieve societal mediocrity and personal apathy. This desire to achieve is the same desire that drives capitalism.
But what if all universities were free? If university was free then we would undoubtedly see more people at universities, unconcerned with the potential debt university fees can create; but would this be preferable? Well, the appeal of a free education is certainly attractive, but in reality, flooding universities can only be damaging to the universities and to society as a whole. With more people entering universities, we would see a decline in those taking on necessary jobs that haven’t traditionally required a university education. We would see fewer people becoming plumbers, electricians and service-workers, all of which are absolutely essential for society; not only that but we would see a massive decrease in innovators and entrepreneurs who historically are rarely university educated, who are willing to take the risk of not attending universities in order to follow their aspirations.
We would also see a massive devaluing of what a university degree is; we would see floods of people leaving universities only to find there is very little work in their chosen field and that, in fact, they would have been better not going to university in the first place! This is already happening with around 10,000 university graduates taking jobs that don’t require degrees, and around 14,000 unemployed (circ. 2016). Not only does free education devalue the degree, but also the university. International league tables show a shocking story. The top two universities in the World remain British. Oxford and Cambridge. The highest-ranked ‘free’ (subsidised) university in the world is ranked #32. By flooding an education system with students who are there because it’s free, you end up with vast numbers of students who care very little for their chosen subject or for education at all, thus devaluing the university.
Another one of the fundamental concepts of capitalism is that of meritocracy. Meritocracy has created Oxbridge. Although it would be foolish to argue that no one has advantages with which they start life in a capitalistic society or that meritocracy as a society-wide ideology does not have flaws, anyone can go to Oxbridge if they work hard enough. It is not based on where you live (catchment areas), it is not based on whether or not your parents are politically influential or how much money you have (although having a good start in life certainly helps), it is based solely on your academic prowess and potential. The capitalistic virtue of meritocracy gives you the ability to do things your parents have only ever dreamed of and to thrive in the environment best for you. Not only that, but again, if you are academically gifted, it gives you the ability to ‘shop around’ and to decide which university you wish to attend. Again, it gives you the agency of choice. It gives you the ability to succeed and to thrive in a field of your choice based upon your own merit. The simple truth is that societies that do not operate on a capitalist model remove these two things, choice and merit, from the vast majority of the society (although rarely the leader or their immediate family), which restricts an individual’s ability to innovate, thrive and develop.