A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Tory Policy, and Higher Education. Not necessarily compatible.

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, The Media on January 12, 2010 at 12:09 am

By David Weber

My initial response to reading Stephen Wan’s latest policy analysis for the Soapbox was that I was amused how much I agreed with the conclusion, but disagreed with the way he got there. In retrospect, this was slightly unfair, I agree with certain elements of the analysis, but find some of the opinions that accompany it somewhat troubling.

Stephen is right to point out the obvious cynisism behind the policy, yet I feel that objectionable though it might be, a more comprehensive rebutal of the basis of the policy is needed. The place I find it weakest is the core assumption that Higher Education is somewhat “unaffordable” to begin with, this is pure nonsense of the highest order. Higher Education is not technically “free at the point of access”, but it is affordable, and this is something that the media has been shockingly duplicitous over.

For this reason, I believe the policy falls down before the Tories even attempt to stand it up to the cold light of scrutiny, and therefore quibbling over the financial status of the children of servicemen killed in action is unnecessary, but moreover, I think it actually misses the point of what has been a growing debate recently about the nature of Higher Education funding.

Higher Education is in a somewhat unique position with regard to the debate about funding compared with other education services, in that it serves as the ultimate social leveller, but the beneficiaries are adults, rather than children. This makes it impossible to determine easily what a fair method of funding is, because the participants are at a stage where they are both seeking greater independence from their family income, and aiming to determine their own future career. This means that not only is determining funding based on family income not necessarily fair, it could be undesirable, particularly as it places a great deal of reliance upon family relations, which are not always brilliant.

The system as it is has moved some way away from this, but the transition is not entirely complete yet. It is still very difficult for people only on the basic loan, and living in an expensive area outside of London such as Brighton, to meet their costs through student finance alone. Thus participants from poor backgrounds are in a somewhat unique position educationally of being better able to pay their way independently than those from richer backgrounds. Interestingly for someone who reluctantly describes themselves as a lefty, I don’t think this is fair, and actually support restricting access to the maintenance grant and instead using the money to boost the basic loan. This probably won’t make me very popular over at Though Cowards Flinch.

So I actually disagree with the premise that “Grants were made to allow children to study at university who can’t otherwise afford it”, although I do see a use for them, particularly in a country where the media lie about access to Higher Education so blatantly. But even if, like me, you think Higher Education should be seen as personal investment, rather than parental choice, you still might think the way that it is funded after university to be unfair. Advocates for a graduate tax would nod their heads most firmly here.

Yet again, I disagree, because the way loans are repaid at present does two things. The first, which is the more contentious, is encourage people to  have a very real idea about the likely job and wage they will get after attending their chosen course. This could hypothetically discourage music students such as myself, and other arts, but there are, I’m afraid, strong economic arguments, particularly as doing a degree in some of these subjects involves a fair amount of irrelevant tuition to begin with, as they are not naturally academic subjects.

Other examples than music may be different, and undervalued by the market, but this strikes me as more of an argument for greater public sector investment in their jobs, as opposed to their degrees, as the loan is repaid quicker if you earn more after university.

The second argument against a graduate tax is far more important, however, in that one of the ways in which the current loan system works best is in treating Higher Education participants as equals — which, we must remember, they are, as once you have attained a place the link between parental income and success is fairly well broken. And moreover, it creates a link between the service you receive and the money you pay back, which is utterly unlike a graduate tax, which has the potential to create all sorts of bad feeling if it is suddenly boosted in the wake of a HE funding crisis, or the number of university places increases, leaving graduates with the impressiong that they are subsidising the decisions of others. And we do not want to create a climate which encourages graduates to move abroad.

In creating a link between the service you receive and the money you pay back afterwards, it effectively discourages the notion that you are paying a tax at all, and encourages a sense of personal responsibility for repayments, which is crucial. Any alleviate for poorer graduates can be achieved by the time limit you set upon the loan, which is currently 20 years — a generation — and can be quite easily adjusted to reflect what is felt to be a fair distribution of the student finance burden. I do not wish to break this link, as it is one of the few ways in which people can still see and understand the link between the tax they pay and the services they receive, and as such it works on more than simply an affordability level.

Moreover, a centre forum studies has shown, quite conclusively, how abolishing tuition fees, one of the suggestions in the conclusion of my friend’s article, would overwhelmingly benefit the top 40% of family earnings. Though I made the point that this is less relevant to fairness than earlier on in education, I still do not think that this is a necessary or desirable side-effect of changes to higher education funding. And now the gloves come off, as I come to the part I most disagree with.

It is Stephen’s notion that “only those who are really at the top should study in HE, or else the system is meaningless” that rankles with me, not least because he does not feel the need to back the point up! To my mind, this is only true if you treat Higher Education as a career game, which — despite my earlier point about treating it as an investment — I do not think should be the case, for a minute. Higher education should be about, even when it is not, gaining knowledge, gaining wisdom, and gaining life skills, just as much, if not more, as gaining a useful career qualification later. It may be, and indeed quite probably is true that some degree devaluation has taken place. This does not matter, for I am convinced that a) the other benefits that increased HE participation outweigh this, such as social mobility, and b) as the Student Question Time last year made perfectly clear, it is impossible to make any judgement about who the “right” people to go to university are. It is patently not just the ultra-smart, as anyone with experience of University could tell you. At the end of the day, the best person to decide whether you should go to university is yourself. That was the vision behind Wilson’s radical Open University project, and it should remain the broader vision today.

Advertisements
  1. I feel compelled to defend my position after reading yours, and obliged to ask for clarification on certain points you make.

    Firstly, you call ‘Higher Education’ affordable, something you don’t quite back-up. What do we mean by affordable? Now, you may disagree with me on this point (and this will naturally colour the nature of our positions on HE funding), but for HE to be affordable it must be relevant, high quality, acccessible for all, accountable, at costs that are within the government fiscal framework, and put at a price that does not put off potential students. I think this definition is more important than to say simply “Something is afforable if I can pay for it”, because affordability includes the necessity to not put off potential students from going into HE; if something is perceived as unaffordable, it is inaccessible.

    So, is HE affordable? My answer would be no – at least, not for the students from poorer families who, although they may technically be able to access HE, perceieve it as unaffordable. This comes because of the negative connotations with the high levels of debt, and the fact that they have no ‘safety net’ that students from richer families do in their parents or guardians.

    I personally am now applying for a maintenance grant (something you wish to restrict I hear?), because my family can be perceived as poor; below the household income of £30000. I would be severly put off applying for university if I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any grants at all, and instead would leave uni with a huge debt hanging around my neck. In fact, only the knowledge that Oxford offers a bursary to people from my household income of nearly £3000, and the government grant of £2900, has convinced me to apply; otherwise, I may well have considered going into full time employment following my A Levels.

    This is markadly different for students from the upper and middle classes, who have much less to worry about. They know if their degree gets them no-where, their parents will be able to some extent pay for them. For myself, it is a one-shot do or die scenario; if I don’t make money after I get my degree, I will be left with nothing but debt.

    Undoubtedly, you would argue that it is not how the tuition fee loan system works at all; that it works, in effect, like a graduate tax, since you don’t have to pay until after you start earning a certain amount, and once you’ve paid enough of the ‘tax’ in tune to the £10000 your tuition fees came to, you no longer have to pay it. Yes, that may be how it works, but its not how its perceived; as far as students are concerned, they’re being left with a debt of such a huge scale. Perhaps we should attempt to change perception? I think there’s a much simpler way; the graduate tax gives no indication of debt, and works in exactly the same way.

    You also say you disagree that grants were made to allow students to study at university who couldn’t otherwise afford it; what then, do you think grants were made for? I’m fairly certain that’s what the Labour government did introduce them for.

    I’m not sure I understand your first argument against tuition fee repayments, since why would it discourage music and art students particularly? Since you don’t start paying until you earn £15000pa, and even then, only £7 a month, why should it discourage you anymore than anyone else? You mention irrelevant tuition, but I’m amused you mention your own tuition as irrelevant with the implication that other tuition in other degrees is therefore ‘relevant’.

    I’m utterly unconvinced by your second argument, since firstly, a graduate tax also breaks the link between parental income and success in the same way that the loan does. Secondly, a student from a richer family can easily afford to pay off the loan straight away, meaning students from poorer families, by virtue of something we call ‘interest’, actually end up paying MORE than students from richer families. A graduate tax is farier because it ensures everyone pays the same proportion of their income towards HE. Finally, I’m not convinced a link between the service you receive and the money you pay back is at all important – moreover, it seems to treat HE like a business, a rather Thatcherite view that I see as wrong. It is enough to have gained the degree, and to continue to fund the university after you have left. And I find it unlikely that a graduate tax would be the tipping point to encourage a graduate to move away, in comparison certainly to income tax.

    As to abolishing tuition fees, I feel the benefits of encouraged access to HE from poorer students would far out-weigh ‘undesirable’ effects of benefiting richer families.

    My apologies for not backing up my point, since that would take me in a whole different direction from what my current one was (attacking Tory policy for all its worth). Unfortunately, we do make a judgement about who the right people to go to university are; I went to an interview at Oxford university, where they did just that, and I take exams in June which will also determine whether I’m right to go or not. Whether these methods are right or wrong, we should be making greater attempts at allowing access only to those who can achieve the very best in HE; whether this be an academic subject, an apprenticeship, vocational course or whatever. The best people to decide whether you go to university should be the experts in the field you’re looking to study in.

  2. “Firstly, you call ‘Higher Education’ affordable, something you don’t quite back-up. What do we mean by affordable?”

    Something one is able to afford.

    “I think this definition is more important than to say simply “Something is afforable if I can pay for it”, because affordability includes the necessity to not put off potential students from going into HE; if something is perceived as unaffordable, it is inaccessible.”

    It is possible this is where I disagree. I simply view HE as affordable in fact — people may perceive it as unaffordable, but this is due to misinformation — see my point about Press duplicitousness.

    “So, is HE affordable? My answer would be no – at least, not for the students from poorer families who, although they may technically be able to access HE, perceieve it as unaffordable. This comes because of the negative connotations with the high levels of debt, and the fact that they have no ’safety net’ that students from richer families do in their parents or guardians.”

    Again, see my point about the media’s misrepresenting the issue. Although I do not consider my family to be poor, I do feel I am somewhat qualified to comment here, being on the full maintenance grant.

    I can tell you instantly that in terms of government finance, students on the full MG have a far better *guarantee* than those from higher income families. Now, these people may have it better if their parents are generous, but that is not a *guarantee*, and this ties in my point about HE treating people as adults. It is a choice which people take upon coming adults, pretty much — and it may be one which they take without the good will of their parents. Most importantly, the funding system works so they pay back their fees based on what they earn *after*. Not what their families earn before.

    “I would be severly put off applying for university if I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any grants at all, and instead would leave uni with a huge debt hanging around my neck.”

    First off, it’s not conventional debt, and it’s specifically designed so it doesn’t ‘hang over you’. In fact, it’s designed so it *cannot bankrupt you* — it works as a deferred tax, albeit tied to a specific amount rather than everlasting.

    Secondly, I did make the point about the system not being complete in a transition from viewing HE as a parental choice, and viewing it as a personal investment. The loans are still not necessarily sufficient if you live in a high rent area, and do not have the luxury of student accomodation. This a problem, which is why I believe the loan needs increasing, and the grant restricted. The fact that grants are paid partially up until an income of £50,000 is entirely unnecessary — that is well into the top 10% of family earnings.

    “In fact, only the knowledge that Oxford offers a bursary to people from my household income of nearly £3000, and the government grant of £2900, has convinced me to apply; otherwise, I may well have considered going into full time employment following my A Levels.”

    I’d tactfully suggest that this would have been a mistake. HE is the type of investment that can greatly increase your employment options afterwards, and as already pointed out, the student debt cannot hang over you in the way that conventional debt does. Moreover, I’d suggest that you’d only potentially be at a disadvantage if you *weren’t* eligible for a student grant and you didn’t get on with your parents, which would mean that you came from a high income family to begin with. The system does actually discriminate against students from higher incomes to an extent.

    “This is markadly different for students from the upper and middle classes, who have much less to worry about.”

    This isn’t necessarily true. You remember our discussions about private education and privilege, and the point I made about a pupil not taking any credit for his parents’ earnings? The argument works in revers for higher education — many students from higher income families will not wish to be an excessive drain upon their parents’ incomes, and instead be looking to forge their own, independent direction at university. I don’t hold that students from higher income families should be treated worse than those from lower income families.

    “For myself, it is a one-shot do or die scenario; if I don’t make money after I get my degree, I will be left with nothing but debt.”

    If you don’t make sufficient money after your degree, then eventually your debt will be written off. The worse case scenario is that you earn an average wage after Uni, in which case you’ll pay your debt off for the full 20 years, and still get some of it written off, but if this is the worst down-side you can think of, I’d suggest that you need better arguments against the system.

    “Yes, that may be how it works, but its not how its perceived; as far as students are concerned, they’re being left with a debt of such a huge scale.”

    …and again, we’re back to misinformation. I’m sorry, but people shouldn’t rail against the governent for not knowing information they should be able to find given a measly amount of research on the subject.

    I blame the media to an extent, but I also think that people who want to go to university should be willing to put some effort into researching ways in which they can gain support for it. I am angry about misconceptions about student finance — prior to Careers classes in sixth-form I misunderstood the system, too — but I think that the government is hardly to blame for this, and that the blame can be squarely heaped upon the media for using it as an utterly misconceived punchbag.

    “Perhaps we should attempt to change perception? I think there’s a much simpler way; the graduate tax gives no indication of debt, and works in exactly the same way.”

    Not exactly, cf my second argument. And yes, perceptions have to be changed, I’m a strong advocate of that.

    “You also say you disagree that grants were made to allow students to study at university who couldn’t otherwise afford it; what then, do you think grants were made for? I’m fairly certain that’s what the Labour government did introduce them for.”

    The grants were made as a sweetner, and tbh that’s what I meant when I said “I can see a use for them”. They’re a way of compensating that students from the poorest backgrounds might lack fairly basic items of equipment when starting Uni that others might take for granted, such as parents willing to fund their transport, etc.. I have nothing against this, I just think that students from families earning above average earnings don’t really need them at all, and that the money would be better used boosting the loan, which is what makes students independent from their parents’ income rather than reliant on it.

    “I’m not sure I understand your first argument against tuition fee repayments, since why would it discourage music and art students particularly? Since you don’t start paying until you earn £15000pa, and even then, only £7 a month, why should it discourage you anymore than anyone else?”

    My point may have been slightly unclear. I meant that art and music degrees are less likely to be ‘career moves’ than perhaps some other degrees are, and there are probably other types of degree which fall into this category: existing more for the sake of knowledge than for qualification.

    “You mention irrelevant tuition, but I’m amused you mention your own tuition as irrelevant with the implication that other tuition in other degrees is therefore ‘relevant’.”

    Well, yes, but it was merely an attempt to illustrate a point from my personal perspective.

    “Secondly, a student from a richer family can easily afford to pay off the loan straight away, meaning students from poorer families, by virtue of something we call ‘interest’, actually end up paying MORE than students from richer families.”

    Interest is more or less tied to inflation, meaning that this simply isn’t correct. Also, your first point isn’t necessarily correct — it assumes that the parents want to pay off the student’s debt, and that the student wants them to.

    “A graduate tax is farier because it ensures everyone pays the same proportion of their income towards HE.”

    Again, I disagree, firstly for the argument I made in my article noting that the link between service received and tax paid is stronger in the case of student loans than it is with most taxes, but secondly because a Graduate tax is a permanent drain on Graduates, whereas loan repayments are temporary. And thirdly, because of the incentives argument. It certainly is a strong economic argument that there is slight incentive towards choosing a degree which will enable you to take a high-skill, high-paying job.

    “Finally, I’m not convinced a link between the service you receive and the money you pay back is at all important – moreover, it seems to treat HE like a business, a rather Thatcherite view that I see as wrong.”

    Far less than the far more restricted number of places prior to 1997, as I said in my article. And as I said, it’s only a slight incentive. It didn’t prevent me from choosing music rather than PPE or Physics.

    “As to abolishing tuition fees, I feel the benefits of encouraged access to HE from poorer students would far out-weigh ‘undesirable’ effects of benefiting richer families.”

    …except that I don’t think there’s any evidence provided that suggests that this would encourage access to HE from poorer students. Centre Forum did an analysis which broke down access compared to grades achieved, and that showed that access was more or less even across income; what really mattered was the grades achieved prior to University. If you want to improve access to University, in other words, you need to improve academic achievement in comprehensive education.

    “The best people to decide whether you go to university should be the experts in the field you’re looking to study in.”

    I agree, but this wasn’t really my point. My point was that the increased number of places allows for more “moderately good” people to attend University than previously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: