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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, 27 September 2011

White paper on higher education

I think we can all agree that the government's white paper on higher education is a disaster. In its current form it will solve none of the (real) problems that it is meant to deal with. Nick Barr's evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee sets out clearly why the proposed policy can't work and points to how it needs to be changed so that it can work. Meanwhile, trumpeted in the Guardian today is the "alternative white paper"  In Defence of Public Higher Education (there is a link from the Guardian article) signed by some of the great and good of British universities (it is interesting to notice which disciplines are represented). 
What strikes me is that it is possible to agree broadly with all nine of the "propositions about the value of public higher education" and still believe that it is a very silly document that contributes precisely nothing constructive to the public debate - and, I think, provides wonderful evidence of much that is wrong headed in some of the social sciences in Britain.
Nowhere does this document address or even hint at answers to the relevant issues (unless you take it as implicit that the signatories believe that general taxation is a viable source of funding for current levels of enrollment and future expansion).  It would have advanced the debate if they had come up with concrete proposals as to: 1) How are you going to put money in the hands of universities now?; 2) How are you going to remove the cap on student numbers imposed by fiscal constraint?; 3) how are you going to reform the current absurd situation in which members of a cohort that gain no direct private gain from publicly funded higher education nevertheless are taxed to pay for it? 
The status quo implies redistribution away from the types of people that train (often at their own expense to be chefs, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics etc in favour of the types of people that go to university to study classics, art history, english literature, theology, film studies and so forth. And people who say that they are in favour of social mobility are in favour of that?


Leo said...

While I initially found that argument about a net redistribution from poor to rich via state-funded university education persuasive, I now think it has less power than perhaps you suggest, for two main reasons:

1) It seems like two distinct issues get conflated in it: the progressiveness or otherwise of the overall system of taxation in the UK, and the funding model for higher education. Conceivably, one could move from the present system of funding for higher education to greater state funding of it, and fund that increase through higher taxes on, for example, inheritance, properies over £2m, and/or incomes over £100,000. In that situation, the redistribution would probably be progressive. Ultimately, insofar as the poorer sections of society pay any taxes, and insofar as HE receives any state funding, whilst the poor are less likely to go through HE than the rich, there is a 'net redistribution from poor to rich', and are you really advocating no contribution from general taxation?
2) Relatedly, surely even people who don't go to university benefit from the wider effects of higher education - not just through the tangible impact scientific research can have, but also because the humanities can enrich a national culture, social sciences can add to the quality of our political culture, and so on. I'm not saying they benefit massively, but equally, they don't fail to benefit in any way, which means it might not be unacceptabel to ask that they contribute a bit, albeit clearly not as much as the prime beneficiaries (i.e. people who get degrees, employers who get skilled labour, etc.).

Colin said...


The question is really one of balance. Nobody I know of is advocating the total removal of all state funding from UK HE. Even with regard to teaching, money is still there for STEM subjects. I happen to think that it was a mistake to withdraw all central funding from non STEM subjects.

I agree that a world in which somebody studies theology, art-history, English literature etc and in which opera, art-galleries, street theatre and so forth receive public subsidies is a better world to live in regardless of whether I personally have a taste for such activities.

But the real question is how to share the costs of providing these things and, at least as far as HE is concerned, I think the balance is wrong, and the direct beneficiaries can afford to pay more (which seems to me to be an eminently good socialist principle of taxation).

Paying more out of general taxes simply won't solve two of the fundamental problems the white paper is supposed to address. 1) the cap on student numbers that every year prevents some of our fellow citizens from finding a university place (isn't that an injustice?) 2) the need for money to go directly to the universities rather than into the Treasury's coffers where it will be given to some of the other competing good causes ie health, secondary schools, nurseries, roads.

The alternative white paper is just a lot of pious noises that we can all subscribe to without facing up to any of the difficult issues or even identifying what they are. No doubt it made the signatories feel good about themselves but it didn't progress the debate one iota.

Leo said...

I suppose I largely agree with you, then, with a couple of provisos:

First, the argument does need to be made for the inherent value of academic research, and for all its faults, at least the Alternative White Paper did try to do that. In particular, the insistence by various governments (especially the last) that research should be thoroughly oriented towards business priorities, or at any rate only accorded funding on the basis of its contribution to those priorities - i.e. that whole 'impact' business - needs to be pushed back against.

Second, real care needs to be taken to make sure that while those who've been through higher education pay their fair share, within that band the way in which money is recuperated is progressive. The government has actually done reasonable things on this for which they've not received credit, and i suspect it was Lib Dem influence that did it. My worry is that everyone paying back their loans at the same rate would add an extra reason for graduates to heavily prioritise highly paid jobs over less well paid jobs that it might benefit society to have people with degrees do. I admit to not knowing even roughly how large an effect that has been on graduates since fees were introduced, but there seem reasonable social justice grounds for having a progressive repayment system anyway. I guess my desire is just to see it become more progressive, so that we end up with a de facto graduate tax that people can't get out of by leaving the country.