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

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

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.

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