Thursday, 15 March 2012
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
In my latest contribution to the ASI blog, I outline how undermining the competitiveness of our best universities will make them less attractive to the international students who fund them, leading to much higher fees for all domestic students.
Tuesday, 13 March 2012
My latest TSJ contribution is a defence of one of my earlier pieces about the relevance of student 'unions'. Another contributor, Tom Newham, rebutted that piece by asserting that higher education was a public good, not a private one.
So in my next article I have set out why I believe students benefit from higher education being treated as a private good. Read it here or below.
Students are consumers, be thankful for it
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how student unions in their current form are ill-serving student interests. Fellow contributor Tom Newham then rebutted me. In wont of anything compellingly better to address in my new article, I’ve decided to have a go at rebutting him in turn. Happily, his piece was angled in such a way that I can attempt that without simply repeating myself, so here goes.
First, let’s deal with his practical objections to my proposal for a consumer comparison service for students being of greater use than posturing ‘unions’. Tom is right when he points out that, for the moment at least, fees are capped at £9,000 p/a. However, this does not invalidate the worth of a ‘Which?’-style organisation, because there is a world of different between value for money and price.
Denied a market pricing mechanism, a lot of very different degrees from different institutions will be masquerading behind the same price without being of the same value. Things such as graduate employment levels, facilities, big-name lecturers, teaching time and quality, industrial placements, travel opportunities, city liveability and more will all go unaccounted for in the price of a degree.
This makes it harder for students to make an informed decision and serves to make a university-focused consumer information organisation more useful than if the price mechanism were in operation, not less. By allowing prospective students to easily compare different courses over a broad range of criteria, such an organisation would do immense good.
Beyond the technicalities, the meat of the distinction Tom drew between himself and I was that I view tertiary education as a private good, and he a public one.
Now, I make no secret of the fact that I consider a degree to be a largely private good, and as I will explain students should be very glad that it is such.
Tom asserts that “the public sees [degree level education] as a vital public good.” Perhaps, if pollsters ask them a certain way, they do. But the problem is, how much degree level education to the public think is a public good?
Once you start using the ‘public good’ defence, you need to fit higher education into a national-utilitarian mechanism for calculating that good and what level of it the public good actually requires.
With higher education, especially the arts, this can be difficult. It is easy to view a public road as a public good, for example, or a public park. But is every degree inherently a public good? It would be hard to persuade the public of that.
If university degrees were seen in such a fashion, then the distribution of funding would have to be centrally planned. The publics’ elected representatives would calculate how many degrees of a given type the country required, and would fund those. There would be ferocious competition for those places. ‘Hard’ subjects like the sciences, medicine and engineering would be overwhelmingly favoured, in line with rational centralisation and popular prejudice.
That isn’t how higher education works in Britain, though. Instead, the government loans school-leavers the money to study anything they like, within the scope of their A Levels. It is left to students to choose what they want to study, where they want to study it and how far they want to study it.
This privilege, the ability to choose for yourself in accordance with your interests and desires and without reference to a central plan drawn up with the interests of the majority in mind (the power, in short, to be an empowered consumer) stems from the fact that your university experience is largely a private good.
Yes, a certain number of graduates in a certain range of subjects are good for the nation. But in all likelihood, your degree is not, in any meaningful capacity. If like me you are or were an Arts student, the chances of your degree being viewed as a ‘vital public good’ plummet yet further.
If higher education were drawn up with a view to ‘the public good’ then the radical expansion thereof launched by Labour would not have happened. That expansion was not driven by the needs of the British employment market, as the inexorable rise in graduate overqualification makes clear. It also rendered tertiary education vastly more expensive, ending forever the days of free tuition.
If a government – Tory or Labour – were to run higher education purely through the prism of the public good they would pare it down dramatically, and there would be intense political focus on which degrees received funding. It would be an undoubtedly meritocratic but elite niche to which most of us would not have access.
Instead, British higher education operates on the belief that more people should have the chance to better themselves by having a shot at higher education. The government loans us the up-front cost so that one’s material station in life is no barrier to entry, and it is then up to us to choose our path through university to try to make that loan worthwhile – whether the reward is material, intellectual or spiritual.
It is this that allows us to act as empowered consumers – choosing our field and place of study – rather than the meek receivers of an allotment of degree opportunities calculated and distributed by the state.
In short, British governments view their role as ensuring broad access to a private good, not the utilitarian supervision of a public one. And if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of students studying history, theatre, gender studies or any other niche or ‘soft’ degree which popular prejudice and political pressure would probably not stand to see subsidised in any numbers, you should be very thankful for that.
Sunday, 11 March 2012
Despite the continued confusion at GT over whether or not I'm still Chief Reporter there (the editor said I am, their site overseer clearly thinks otherwise) I've got an op-ed published about the recent defections from the Conservatives to UKIP and why it's a bad, bad idea. Read it here.
Thursday, 8 March 2012
In the latest edition of the European Democrat Students magazine BullsEye (Issue 47), I have an article entitled "...and justice for all? Self-determination and the Serbs", in which I highlight the punitive double-standard being operated against the Serbian people by the foreign arbiters of Balkan territorial disputes. The comparison to Northern Ireland is quite neat.
You can either head over there and download the e-zine for the pretty double-page spread, or the text is reproduced below.
...and justice for all? Self-Determination and the Serbs
The Balkan conflicts are inextricably tied to questions of race, identity and territory. The tragic collapse of Yugoslavia was marked by the clash between the irredentist aspirations of its various nationalisms.
The wars that scarred the region were eventually ended by NATO intervention, and today the situation is monitored by international bodies such as the UN and the European Union.
Whilst definitely a good thing, the fact that powerful foreign actors have such a massive influence over the course of events in the Balkans means that we have to take our responsibilities in the region very seriously. We must also make sure that we properly understand the assumptions – and prejudices – that underlie our policies.
When it comes to the settling of disputed borders then this boils down to one question: is our policy to arrive at borders that strike as fine a balance as possible between the competing desires of the region’s peoples? Or is it to deliver collective punishment to the Serbian people for the crimes of the Milošević government?
I ask because it appears that the foreign powers that are arbitrating the political settlement are operating a racially- or culturally-motivated double-standard.
On the one hand, the borders of non-Serb states are held to be inviolable, despite large and geographically contiguous Serb populations being trapped within them. That has been our policy with the Republika Srpska and Krajina.
On the other, Serbia herself can happily be partitioned if a non-Serb population wish it so. That has been our policy with Kosovo and would presumably be our policy should Vojvodina wish to secede from Serbia proper.
So the question is what – other than its Serb character – makes the Repulika Srpska so different from Kosovo that the latter can be granted a right to self-determination that is denied the former?
Yet this problem runs even deeper than that, because the indivisibility of non-Serbian states is held as inviolable even while those states are being created from Serbian sovereign territory.
Case in point: North Kosovo. North Kosovo is a Serb majority area that is geographically adjacent to Central Serbia. If it were allowed to remain within Serbia there would be no awkward boundaries or problematic exclaves to deal with.
Surely North Kosovan Serbs have the same right to remain in Serbia as Kosovar Albanians have to secede from it?
As an Anglo-Irishman, I can well understand the situation in North Kosovo because it mirrors the United Kingdom’s own experiences in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is perhaps this experience that leads to Britain being one of the only international peacekeepers giving partition a fair hearing.
In short, a stable and contiguous population find themselves entangled in a nationalist project to which they do not subscribe, and face being torn from a state of which they are loyal and contented citizens.
As a democrat and anti-nationalist, my view is that in both instances partition (if not the eventual shape of that partition, which is more debateable) was the only just solution, because the alternatives are based on competing and equally valid nationalisms.
For example, the Kosovar nationalist who asserts ‘North Kosovo is Kosovar’ is no different either rationally or morally from the Serb nationalist who asserts ‘Kosovo is part of Serbia!’ Each of them is doing exactly the same thing: claiming that they have the right to overrule a group’s self-determination on the basis of nationalist ideology.
For the international authorities arbitrating the situation, declaring one of those statements a defensible fact and the other an irredentist outrage is nothing more than choosing an arbitrary favourite. That should not be our role.
The just solution, in circumstances like these, is a partition that adheres as closely as possible to the desires of the people on the ground. No nationalist on either side should be allowed to lay claim to great swathes of people who do not wish to be part of their project.
The British Unionists who fought for the preservation of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union understood this well. In the preface to the pamphlet Against Home Rule: The Case for the Union the Conservative leader – and staunch unionist – summed up the case for partition:
“Every argument which can be adduced [cited] in favour of separate treatment of the Irish Nationalist minority against the majority of the United Kingdom, applies with far greater force in favour of separate treatment for the Unionists of Ulster as against the majority of Ireland.”
To paraphrase: As Belgrade cannot compel Pristina to be Serbian, so Pristina cannot compel North Kosovska Mitrovica to be Kosovar. As Belgrade could not compel Sarajevo to be Yugoslav, so Sarajevo cannot compel Banja Luka to be Bosnian. There is nothing to render one nationalism superior to the other.
On the one hand, North Kosovo could remain within Serbia. Perhaps the three Albanian-majority districts of Serbia adjacent to Kosovo's eastern border could be offered the opportunity to join Kosovo in exchange.
As for the Western double standard, the only possible stem that I can see is the legacy of Milošević and his cohort of Serb ultra-nationalists who tore Yugoslavia to pieces. The Serbs do not deserve the same rights to self-determination as the other former-Yugoslav peoples, the argument runs, because they caused all this horror in the first place.
Yet this cannot – must not – be the international position. It goes without saying that Milošević, Mladić and Karadžić were monsters; that they and their followers must face justice and that their victims must see justice done.
But key to their evil was its racism, the crime of treating human beings as indistinguishable representatives of their race or creed rather than individuals. We must not fall into the trap of exercising the reverse policy.
We must always be vigilant that we punish the individual, and never the race. The people of North Kosovo should not have their right to self-determination abrogated because of the crimes of other Serbs.