Welcome to the world of pay-per-learn universities

If the Renaissance had been run by New Labour, they'd have told Michelangelo to do business studies
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The Independent Online

Maybe Tony Blair's next plan to fund education is pay-per-learn. It will run in the same way as a porn channel - the lecturer will do the first five minutes free, then go all fuzzy until you give him four pounds and fifty pence. Poor students would pay in advance by meter. As soon as their credit ran out, they'd have to search down the back of a settee for a pound coin so they could find out the last three long-term effects of the Treaty of Versailles.

Or there's the untapped area of sponsorship. Scientific lectures could begin "Let's see what happens when we apply a random particle acceleration technique to a gaseous substance, such as Lilt, with the totally tropical taste that puts the fizz into physics. Hmmm. It's tangy, it's cheery, it proves quantum theory."

The most impressive side to Blair's argument is that charging students tens of thousands of pounds will encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university. He must think piles of debt will make the working class feel more at home. Perhaps he'll encourage them even more by randomly shutting down certain courses halfway through and making the students redundant. They'll turn up to find a padlock on the gates of the lecture theatre and find the course has moved to Sri Lanka, creating an atmosphere people from a working-class environment can relate to.

Then he could start on primary schools. After all, it's been proved that students who attend these schools end up earning more than they would if they couldn't read or add up, so it's only fair they pay towards the Ladybird books and fuzzy felt once they're on their paper rounds. And we could apply this to the health service. No one could object if patients had to pay back the cost of health care once they resumed work, as every study shows that people who have benefited from operations earn more than the dead.

Blair has created a novel perspective on taxation: that it's unfair to ask those who earn more to pay more, so instead we're going to take it off those who might earn more eventually. But mostly he's saying that education shouldn't be paid for by society, it should be paid for by each individual. Which is just about the most miserable self-centred Thatcherite concept you can imagine.

To start with, it revolves around the assumption that the only purpose of education is to enable the student to earn more. From the way Blair and his supporters talk, they have no idea that education has any value in itself. They can no more imagine someone might wish to learn a language or study literature or science because they're fascinated by the subject, than that someone might fill in a lottery ticket because they love drawing circles round numbers. They also fail to see how education might benefit society as a whole. Their attitude is "Why should I fork out just because some other bastard wants to speak Spanish and know how light works?"

If the Renaissance had been run by New Labour, they'd have told Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo not to waste time on science and drawings but concentrate on business studies. Because for Blair, success means making money. A great novel or piece of art isn't one that inspires or challenges, it's one that makes a few bob. He probably considers Van Gogh was rubbish, until after he died when he became a genius.

Other societies had an opposite outlook. Aristotle stated the purpose of his school, the Lyceum, was because "it is right for men to inquire'. And there's no record of him adding: "And once I've taught you whether you're really here or not you'll make a killing in the advertising game."

One of the slogans of the French Revolution was Danton's statement, inscribed on his statue in Paris, that "after bread, education is the most important possession we have''. Which contrasts slightly with the statement by one chancellor, who supports the top-up fees, who declared last week: "Education is a loss-making activity." What a sick way of looking at life. When he sits on the toilet he must calculate how much revenue-creating time he's losing, only going through the process at all by measuring it against the cost of continually replacing his trousers if he didn't, thereby enabling him to justify the activity as a loss-leading, long-term investment.

But once again Blair's main argument appears to be "Oh come on, you can trust me. I'm Tony, and you know I wouldn't do anything nasty." Like David Brent in The Office, the more unbearable he becomes, the more he becomes convinced that everyone likes him. When he addresses the MPs opposed to the fees he'll tell them: "I know we have a laugh, a right giggle, but seriously, that lot out there, they know I wouldn't let their kids' education down, because they see me as a father figure. So I'm putting my job on the line with this one. And let's face it, if they thought it was either the top-up fees or me, well, they'd rather get into thirty grand of debt even without an education than think of not having me around. Fact."