Friday, 5 October 2012

Dilettante in Trinity News: Your Education, Your Responsiblity

My first article for the independent university paper has gone up this week, in which I make the case for a fees-and-loans system of higher education funding and decry the alternatives. It's been a while since I got to pitch fees to an audience of student activists, so this was good fun.

You can view the printed version in on-the-page format here, go to page 16. They have cut some paragraphs for length and added the odd typo (including substituting a 'T' for the 'W' in the first word, which given its prominence is fairly unfortunate). Sadly I don't have a word-processed version with their edits, so if you're finding that hard to read I've reproduced my submitted version below. Enjoy!

Your Education, Your Responsibility

When travelling abroad, it is always nice to catch sight of something familiar from home. That’s how I felt when I opened the pages of the Trinity student press during Fresher’s week and discovered a raging debate about fees.

The problem of paying for higher education is one that the UK and Ireland share. It is a topic that splits students along ideological lines and provides them with a keystone issue by which to measure political parties in which they might otherwise take little interest. Indeed, the fees issue has come to define, and may well destroy, the junior partner in Britain’s current coalition, the Liberal Democrats.

Ireland and Britain also seem to share the fact that the majority of students (or at any rate, student activists) passionately believe that someone else should pay for their degree, whether through the retention of the old grants system or the imposition of a graduate tax, and are strongly averse to identifying students as consumers.

The case I want to make to you is simple: that a fees-and-loans model is the best and fairest means for paying for university; that higher education is treated as a fundamentally private good (and we should be glad of that); and that students are ill-served by any refusal on the part of their advocates to adopt a consumer mentality.

Before beginning, it is worth pointing out that I do not subscribe to the notion that tertiary education is a ‘right’, a belief which renders any debate about the costs and benefits of higher education entirely otiose. Rather I take the view that spending four years enrolled in a university is not a fundamental part of the human condition but something that must be justified on its merits and it is in that spirit that this case is offered.

The one irrefutable point around which the funding debate rages (and I use that word advisedly) is that higher education has to be paid for somehow. The question is who pays for it. Under a grant model, the burden of your undergraduate degree is shouldered by the population in general. Under a graduate tax, successful graduates pay for their own degree and the degrees of those less successful. Under fees-and-loans everybody pays for their own, with the up-front cost met by a low-to-no-interest government loan to remove any barrier to entry posed by cost.

Put that way, I feel the unfairness of the first two suggestions is apparent. Although a relatively light burden during the age when university was simply another stage in the life cycle of a narrow professional class, the cost to the taxpayer of grant-funding university today would be phenomenal, and would fall on great swathes of people who don’t enjoy the advantages of higher education and never will. It also provides no incentive to make the most out of a degree, and could lead to people using it as an excuse to postpone adult life for four years without taking academia seriously.

A graduate tax takes this even further and conjures a whole set of perverse incentives. Those who feel they have a good chance at making a success of themselves, and those wealthy enough to afford it regardless, may well prefer to take out even a commercial loan and face the repayments rather than sign off a section of their income for the rest of their lives. If no opt-out existed domestically this could drive many of a country’s best and brightest abroad. In either scenario, those high achievers who are expected to pay for the rest will be out of the system.

If they’re not, it does not strike me as fair to have a funding system that provides no disincentives to the lazy or aimless – whose university education will be free if they make little of it – whilst thrusting the costs onto the hard-working and ultimately successful.

In contrast, a fees-and-loans system combines personal responsibility with equality of opportunity. Government loans ensure that everybody can go to university if they choose to, whilst income-based repayments (as in the UK) ensure that graduates only pay back when they can afford to. The upside is that everyone has to take ownership of their degree. If they feel that they will receive sufficient reward from it (whether in terms of income, personal development or any other measure) to justify taking on the student debt then they will go to university, and the system will incentivise them to take as much from the opportunity as they possibly can. On the other hand, those who might have simply drifted into university for want of anything better to do will be forced to give the decision, and the potential alternatives, proper consideration.

“Ah”, the opponent of fees might say, “but higher education is a public good. It is in the government’s interest to have a better-educated workforce, and so it should pay for our degrees”.

This is true up to a point. It is certainly in the national interest to have a pool of graduates, particularly in areas where it sees potential for economic growth (such as Ireland’s high-tech sector). Yet it is surely impossible to sustain the conceit that every degree is a public good, which it is in the public interest to pay for from general taxation.

If the government genuinely treated degrees as a public good, then both the number of degrees it funded and which subjects received those degrees would be government decisions, decided centrally. The government would, in line with its own priorities, work out which degrees were in the public interest and provide them. As with all things government decides, this would doubtless fall prey to opinion polls and popular perception.

For an Arts student, let alone someone studying a subject not held in high public esteem (beware any subject with the word ‘studies’ in the title), the outlook would be grim. How many historians or psychologists would the public be willing to pay for, if it were actually presented with parties which had to dole out degree places as a matter of public policy?

In these austere times, reducing the higher education budget by cutting ill-regarded courses would look like an easy win to a government with its back pressed to the financial wall, and “do we want to pay for [insert degree] when we’re cutting [vital public service]?” is a question that “give us more stuff” education activists probably don’t want politicians asking the public.

Rationed places, distributed according to centrally-determined intake priorities, are a long way from equality of access or opportunity, and like most central planning serves to disempower the people who use the service, students.

Happily, the government operates a different system: one where a student can choose to study whatever they like within the limitations of the grades they left school with. Students are free to follow their personal preferences, even when this leads to low take-ups for subjects the government and the public want more of and very high take-ups for popular courses neither government nor public thinks are very useful (in the UK those positions are represented in totemic fashion by mathematics and psychology respectively), or when the number of ‘graduate jobs’ fails to grow at a rate commensurate to the number of graduates and produces large over-qualification levels (as in Britain).

In short, the government treats a degree as a largely private good, whose benefits accrue primarily to the individual who holds it. Government and others such as businesses and the universities themselves can fund the public good within this framework via bursaries and scholarships, but it is the private-good framework that affords students the freedom of choice that we cherish.

By removing barriers to entry and allowing students to choose where they go, the government allows us to act like empowered consumers. Although it doesn’t sit easily with a student self-image that casts us in the mould of workers, with unions and strikes to match, the fact is that our relationship with our university is that of consumer and provider, and we are ill-served if we refuse to recognise this.

Students need a Which?-style consumer information and advocacy organisation to help them make informed choices about what degree to choose and lobby to ensure they get the best possible value for money. If the government does not allow the price mechanism free reign in higher education (and few people in Europe want the American system) then the need for such a group is all the greater, because of the vast difference between cost (which would be nationally uniform in most systems) and value for money.

 An organisation that tracks graduate employment, student satisfaction and a host of other measures for each degree, and makes that information easy to find and compare, will serve prospective students far better than sit-ins and walk-outs by empowering them to make well-informed decisions. We’ve not got one yet because such an approach lacks the anti-capitalist style and class-warfare glamour with which much of the ‘student movement’ is so unhelpfully enamoured.

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