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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Censoring science

I just finished reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. It was puffed by George Steiner amongst others as the greatest Russian novel of Twentieth Century. To be honest I found it a bit of a drag. There were a few bits of very good writing and a lot of melodramatic stuff. In the end I didn't really care very much about any of the War and Peace size cast of characters. But yet again serendipity strikes. 
One of the plot lines involves a  Jewish theoretical physicist who makes a revolutionary new discovery. Initially he is recommended for a Stalin Prize, but his scientific and political enemies decide that a bit of anti-semitism may be expedient, turn against him and attempt to have his scientific work condemned as anti-Soviet and not in accordance with the principles of Marxist-Leninism. All very plausible for the 1940s, but I thought that most totalitarian dictatorships had by now learned that science is just science. Apparently not, as I saw today from one of Andrew Gelman's posts. The publication of the Chinese version of his text  Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models has been cancelled because of  its "politically sensitive" content.

Paying for Higher Education II

So what will be the consequences of the new fees regime? If it is carried out in good faith - which is a big if - it's not obvious to me that it will have much of an impact on inequalities in access. Of course nobody actually knows - but the evidence from the last 10 or so years, scanty as it is, seems to suggest: 1) total enrolments in higher education have increased not decreased 2) that enrolment differentials between those coming from the top and the bottom of the social class hierarchy haven't changed much and if anything may have moved in the direction of equalization. It has even been claimed that the latter is true (once A level grades are controlled) with respect to choices about which type of university to attend. The latter, if it is true, certainly surprised me as I had assumed along with a lot of other people that an expansion of the higher education sector would lead to more internal differentiation with people from less affluent backgrounds "expanding" into the more, shall we say,  marginal "universities".
Turning away from questions of access, a lot of the commentary has been about about the consequences of removing core teaching funding from most arts, humanities and social science subjects. Some of this has been, in my view, silly - for example John Sutherland in the Guardian. Among the more serious pieces is Stefan Collini's in the London Review of Books. Much is made of the predicted corrosive effects of "marketization" on the teaching on non vocational subjects. The fears are real and the argument is not absurd , but it  may be a little exaggerated. In short two effects are predicted: 1) students will desert the traditional arts and humanities in favour of more "applied" subjects and universities will react by closing down classics, philosophy, english or whatever it is that the market doesn't favour; 2) those that survive will be corroded from the inside as the remaining punters make increasingly consumeristic demands on their teachers culminating in  pressure on standards,   nobody fails, nobody gets a 2.2 etc. Both of these outcomes are possible, however they are not inevitable and in some cases not necessarily undesirable.
Students seem remarkably resistant to being told what they should study. Attempts to incentivise students to go in for science and engineering when they really want to do history or psychology have not met with great success. In fact, at least in England and Wales the die is effectively cast at age 16 when people choose their A level subjects. If you have chosen arts and humanities at this stage no amount of incentivisation is going to make you choose physics when it comes to going to university. And of course what actually matters is whether English or Beatles Studies at North Rutland Academy of Higher Learning (PLC) still gives you an advantage in the labour market over your peers who declined the opportunity in favour of direct entrance into  Macdonald's. Subjects come and subjects go and while it's important that somebody somewhere offers   Old Norse, Hebrew, Classical Philology or whatever it is not necessary for all universities to offer everything.
The corrosion from the inside argument possibly has an element of truth. Increased fees probably will mean that students will feel entitled to more and some of that "more" may be channelled into grade inflation. It may also be channelled into paying more attention to student "satisfaction" surveys. The short-termism, raised to a virtue  in this, is definitely to be deplored. As Collini quite rightly says:

"It may be that the most appropriate way to decide whether the atmosphere in the student bar is right is by what students say when asked in a questionnaire whether they ‘like’ it or not. But this is obviously not the best way to decide whether a philosophy degree should have a compulsory course on Kant. The philosophy department might hope that, some time after graduation, most of its former students would come to see the wisdom of this requirement, but ‘student satisfaction’ is not what is at issue here. That this recognition is retrospective tells us something important about education: individuals often need to be told by someone who knows that a particular line of study is worth pursuing whether at the time they want to or not."

On the other hand Sutherland gives the game away a bit in his observation:

"Grade inflation? Think Weimar. And think lawsuits – particularly in subjects (eg history of art) where marking is impressionistic, dependent on the subjective judgment of the marker."

If there are subjects where judgements about  achievement are subjective (arbitrary?) then I would have thought that students would be quite right to be pushy and I would wonder why, exactly, grades were being awarded at all. If there are rules as to what counts as a good performance, no matter how arbitrary, (cultural?) then they should be publicly articulated, after all the rules of all games are arbitrary but that doesn't prevent us from knowing who won and who lost. If however being a winner or loser depends on a whim then perhaps we should ask ourselves whether cultural games  without rules really belong inside the academy?

One final thought. An important element of the Browne strategy is that price should signal something about quality. My intuition is that in practice there will be little price differentiation across the sector. All will jump to 6K and the rate of claw back for going over that figure will discourage most universities from doing so. Browne actually assumes that 6K is not the real cost of an u/g education in the UK (to leave room for "efficiency savings"). Of course nobody knows what it is, but we can make a guess based on the fees charged to non-EU students. These are considerably higher, as, by the way, are the tuition fees at a good private secondary day-school. Setting the ceiling too low will actually destroy important information about quality. The rhetoric of encouraging students to act as rational consumers may be just that: rhetoric.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Paying for Higher Education

I figure it's about time that I tried to set out my reaction to the Browne Report and the likely direction of future government policy on higher education. It is, obviously, important to distinguish these from each other, not least because some of the good (in my view) intentions that lie behind Browne's recommendations could be undermined by cack-handed implementation that fails to realise that policies work best when they are part of a mutually reinforcing package. So what you make of Browne partly depends on whether you trust the Coalition to avoid taking short cuts that will undermine the achievement of some of the policy objectives. On this count I must say that the current proposal to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance is stupid and it would be entirely reasonable on the basis of this to doubt that the Coalition is acting in good faith. If the major driver of tertiary level participation is school  grades at 18/19 and we are worried that children from poorer households drop out of school too early, then removing financial support that helps to keep them  in school seems not only obtuse but actually smacks of kicking the weakest section of society. A lot of the  hand wringing of the Liberal Democrats would be better directed at protesting against this rather than beating themselves up about their policy U turn on tuition fees. 
This is a big topic so I'm not going to discuss all the issues in one post. Here I'm going to stick just to the question of fees and how to pay for higher education.
Now to Browne itself. To make sense of the report you have to accept the following diagnosis of what is wrong with the way that we currently finance our universities. There are a number of elements of this which I'll just list: 1) Universities  need more money than the current system will provide and they need it now; 2) It is  highly unlikely for political reasons that any government will fill the funding gap from general taxation - ie in a fight with the Treasury over public spending, education will always be trumped by other departments; 3) The current funding arrangements restrict supply - ie limit the number of university places available and distort the preferences of universities in favour of high fee paying overseas students; 4) The current fees cap in effect means that students pay the same regardless of whether they eat caviare or baked beans; 5) The current zero real rate of interest that graduates pay on their loans is needlessly expensive (for the tax-payer) and quite perverse ie there is an incentive for students from affluent backgrounds to borrow money (they don't need to finance their  studies) cheaply, invest it and make a profit; 6) Paying for higher education out of general taxation is distributionally regressive. 
There is no such thing as a free education. Somebody has to pay. I got my university education without paying anything  up front. Of course I've subsequently paid for some of  it through general taxation but so have my mates who left school at 16, got jobs in the car factories and as engineering apprentices and never entered a university classroom. It's not obvious to me what positive externality they gained from subsidizing my taste for contemplating the finer points of  Althusser's interpretation of Marx. They didn't expect me to subsidize out of general taxation their Friday night exercises in the appreciation of M&B ("a pint of the Midlands") or Watney's "Red Barrel". Yes, there is positive spill over to everybody from having educated people around. But there are also large private benefits that, for whatever reason, generate higher salaries. And there is also a pure consumption aspect of higher education - its fun to read poetry, master mathematics, figure out how the world works. It's also fun to watch football and go to rock-concerts but generally we don't expect the tax payer to subsidize it.
We could argue about the details of my points 1) though 6) but my guess is that there is a reasonable degree of agreement about the scope of the current problem. If that is the case then the only question is how to design a funding system that is politically feasible and delivers other objectives ie produces the cash when the universities need it, is equitable (between all members of society) etc.
As far as I can see there are only 3 basic strategies available: 1) Public funding of everything (including maintenance) through general taxation; 2) A graduate tax ie payroll deduction  3) A fee and loan system  (such as proposed by Browne). As far as I'm aware  no major political parties advocate going back to 1). 2) has some support but I'm persuaded that it cannot deliver what is required.  Firstly a graduate tax will not deliver money to the universities now. Secondly it will go into the general Treasury pot and be distributed through the usual rough and tumble of the budget negotiations. You would have to be an optimist to believe that higher education would be able to fight off the predations of other government departments. Thirdly it would uncouple what students pay from the actual cost of what they receive. 3) as formulated in the Browne proposals could be re-described  (it might be politically helpful) as a hypothecated graduate-tax with a fixed term (debts are forgiven after 30 years), allowance for payment holidays (you don't pay back anything if your income drops below a threshold) and, crucially, no up front payments. As Nick Barr quite rightly points out, under Browne students pay nothing, it is the graduates who pay and only when they are earning above the threshold. Like him, I'm completely baffled as to why commentators believe that potential students (especially those from poorer backgrounds) will be deterred from higher education because of fears about debt. There seems to be scant evidence that graduates from poorer backgrounds are loath to take out mortgages or rack up credit card debt both of which are much more scary. If you lose your job or get sick you still have to pay your mortgage and your VISA bill, your student loan repayment however will be suspended. The impact of  student debt on your credit rating is also likely to be negligible. If you think about student loan repayments in relation to the total burden of  taxation throughout the individual's lifetime it amounts to a trivial proportion.
So, as you by now can probably guess, I believe that something like the Browne proposal are the way to go. Student protests are, of course, entirely understandable. Students have been sitting at a heavily subsidized lunch table and as graduates they will have to pick up a lot more of the tab. It's not nice to have goodies taken away from you. You get used to them. You feel you are entitled to them.  It feels unfair. That doesn't however mean that it is sensible or is in fact fair to continue to pretend that the lunch was and should always be free. The anguish of the Lib Dem backbenchers should be seen for what it is - not as a concern for the genuinely needy but a concern about the electoral support of the middle two-thirds whose sons and daughters have traditionally gone to university on the cheap (and by the way have had no qualms about forking out the fees for the private secondary education  or  takng on an expensive mortgatge for a house near a good state school that has got them into Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Bristol etc etc.).

More to follow on other aspects of Browne...