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Tuition fees round-up, part 2

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

David Weber

Part 2 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part one.

The next thing I want to focus on is the practicalities of this issue. If one assumes that fiscal austerity made Higher Education cuts inevitable (which I do), how justifiable has the Coalition’s response been? Were they wrong, as Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, contends, to rule out a graduate tax as a viable alternative? How thorough have they been on matters of detail in ensuring fairness?

The first issue to look at is a graduate tax, as this is the basis of most constructive disagreements over the policy, such as the NUS’. It is worth noting as we start that despite quite a lot of strong arguments against it, not all criticism of the graduate tax has been worthy. Quite a number of criticisms have had something of a weasel nature, criticising the worst possible form of the policy without addressing any of the stronger proposals on the table. It would be all very well if these were merely the typical emanations of those who do not know better, but when they crop up in the Browne report itself, it is indicative of a more serious ideological agenda.

Arguments such as: “poorer graduates would have to pay back more”; “it would take time for the money to accumulate”; and even “you could avoid the tax by moving abroad” are simply not credible in the manner they are flung about by most opponents. Arguing that poorer graduates would have to pay back more under a graduate tax is simply childish. It assumes that a government would levy the tax directly on top of the basic rate of income tax, which it would be under no obligation to do. As for the money taking time to accumulate, given that student loans are paid back as a deferred graduate tax, this will already hold true. No new money will come in from the new fees until roughly three years after they come in. It is true that the government loans money upfront to the student by which they pay fees immediately, but the government could just as easily loan money to the University and wait for greater future returns from a graduate tax to pay it off. There is little difference. As for moving abroad, although graduates do now have to make repayment arrangements with the Treasury on moving abroad, this will prove difficult and the Treasury allegedly receives little money from graduates living abroad. If that wasn’t enough, there are also political difficulties. No government of a democratic and liberal nature will want to be seen to use student debt to force graduates to stay within the country, therefore proving that a graduate is not paying their fair share will be very difficult.

That said, I think that there are strengths to the fees system. The first is that it relieves government of the political control it has of University funding, at least to a degree (no pun intended). Any system with a cap on fees is of course going to incur a certain amount of co-funding by government, to prevent public Universities from losing out to private ones (although private Universities currently number only two in Britain). The fees system means that Universities are therefore less often under the danger of political tinkering or sudden funding cuts than they would be if they were funded by taxation.

It can also be argued that government control of the system of funding is more likely to lead to inefficiencies and wasted money than student control. I am somewhat more sceptical of this view than I used to be, however, mainly through my own experience of university and the knowledge that students are, in general, poor consumers. We do not know what the experience of a course will be, in full, until at least a year in, by which point a lot of money is spent. We do not know a great deal about educational methods ourselves, and are not likely to be able to assess university quality in our current positions. Add into the equation the distorting effects of a fee cap, and it is likely that some Universities over-charge by quite a degree for their own courses, confident in the knowledge that the cap makes it unlikely that students will disregard higher quality courses for a cheaper alternative. And just to cement this argument, evidence from America, which has the highest University fees in the world, shows that it is unlikely that an uncapped system would keep prices down.

But there are other flaws with a graduate tax system. There would be no incentive for Universities to invest in the future of their graduates — unless the student paid their taxes directly to their University, which would incur its own problems: high paying degrees would immediately become the market winners, distorting it beyond any level that a market in fees would. Arts and certain humanities courses would only survive by being subsidised by ‘winners’, which would be the death warrant for specialised colleges such as conservatoires and arts colleges.

With a fees system, funding follows the student in a rational way, where higher paid graduates merely pay back their contributions quicker than the lower paid — in the long term, there is little difference between the two. Admittedly, the new system is more skewed, interest means that many will pay back more than what they were loaned, whereas many will have their loans written off partially unpaid. But by taking on all or part of the risk, the government can tame this problem. And passing on a little of the risk to Universities would mean that they had a small incentive to offer high quality courses, without spelling the death warrant for Arts and Humanities.

So is the bill that has just passed in the Commons a perfect solution? By no means. The main criticisms I have, in fact, are a matter of far smaller detail than I have yet discussed, and therefore represent not so much an ideological difference of opinion (unlike many critics) than a practical one. I find myself uneasy about the impact of passing on the higher fees all at once. What private good on the market will suddenly increase in price by 200%? Indeed, if it is fiscally possible, the government would be well advised to accept a proposed amendment in the House of Lords, which would stagger the increases.

I am also concerned by the introduction of interest. Despite the fact that I can see good intentions behind this decision — a growing rate of interest will mean that the higher paid the graduate, the more they pay off — and an upfront penalty for early repayment will prevent the very richest from escaping their fair share. But interest is a clumsy way to ensure fairness, and already the possibility of stricter Muslims refusing the loans has arisen. Though I by no means believe the government should be accommodating of every religious value, this is a clear case where it should accommodate.

The fact that the government is fighting a losing battle in communicating the universalism of this system — the fact that everyone will be able to afford university — is also depressing. Here I am not just critical of the government, which only has so much influence with the public, but also the NUS, the media, and the countless people who believe that their own free University education was the only affordable way to go. No doubt such people would be perfectly happy to pay higher taxes to afford that opportunity to today’s generation of students.

In conclusion, then, there are a number of unpleasant factors behind the recent vote to reform university funding, and increase tuition fees. Not only that, but on some points the policy is wrong, and potentially damaging. Despite this, it remains for the most part a necessary, if unpleasant, reform.

Part one


Tuition fees round-up, part 1

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm

David Weber

Part 1 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part two.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that I intend these articles to be my last on Tuition fees for a while. On the other hand, my record for sticking to pledges made in The Daily Soapbox is worse than the Liberal Democrat’s record of sticking to pledges made at election time. At least they’ve only broken one.

After a somewhat excessive and unfair rant about priorities of students marching in the recent protests, I intend to take a step back and analyse not just the overall picture behind last week’s vote, and whether it was necessary or not, but the cracks and flaws within the art-work as well. I generally think that despite last week’s vote being necessary as a policy in a time of public spending cuts, there are some less than palatable aspects to the whole debacle and one or two individual elements of the policy with which I disagree. When the government will clearly struggle to achieve the fiscal timetable it intends to and is already cutting deeper in some areas than I would like, it was the right decision to pass on some of the costs of universities to future graduates. But it is a pity that it had to approach it from such an unfortunate backdrop, and it has not got the question right on every level.

The first thing to note is the fact that a perverse situation exists where most of the protesters have the moral highground, despite the necessity of reform. There can be no question about this. Despite the fact that Nick Clegg was clearly more sensible about the issue before the election than most of his party, he not only emphasised a manifesto policy he knew not to be sound, but went to the ultimate extreme of signing a separate pledge in public, surrounded by students.

Some background about the Liberal Democrats’ political traditions is necessary to gain a nuanced understanding of this. The Liberal Democrats like to do things en masse. What better demonstrated this than the speculation that Vince Cable might actually abstain over his department’s legislation? This is somewhat ironic for a party wedded to the politics of compromise and coalition, of meeting people half-way — but we have seen ever since the coalition that there is a significant section of the party grassroots which prefers the purity of opposition politics to the practicality of government. And given the amount of time the Liberal Democrats, the Social Democrats and before it the Liberal party have spent in opposition, this is magnified to a far larger degree than in any party of government since 1931.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ volte face can only be seen, in a moral light, as betrayal. They have performed the opposite action to that which they promised their voters, many of whom only supported them because of this. This is more than a simple broken promise, it is one of the highest order in a democracy. However, it is yet another example of the fact that the British constitution works far better when it comes to government than when it comes to democracy.

And unfortunately for the beliefs of democrats, this is not an example in democracy’s favour. The pledge the Liberal Democrats signed was naive and unsustainable, but they entered into government at a time when the interests of sustainability and hard-nosed decisions demanded it. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. To abandon their pledge would have been immoral, but no less so than to stand impotently by and engineer an impotent government. Viewed in this light, in choosing to sacrifice the pledge and join government they picked the lesser of two evils.

Does this lessen the betrayal towards many students, and from many students’ point of view? Not at all. The simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats broke their manifesto promise, and as such they deserve to be punished at the next election. Whether or not they should be is another matter. The British system of democratic government does not often serve the interests of justice well, contrary to the regular claims of its supporters. The 2005 election, in an ideal world and an ideal system, would have seen Labour more comprehensively punished for the Iraq War, but other considerations proved weightier on polling day. The 1992 election would, in an ideal world, have seen the support attained by John Major garner comparative rewards, but instead his party suffered a humiliating reduction in the size of its majority. Elections are often determined by a rag-bag cocktail of issues, which are often quite trivial compared to the verdict they deliver.

So much, then, for the Liberal Democrats’ shocking betrayal. History may attach little importance to it when judging their record in government. Such is politics. The next important moral issue which requires attention is the conduct of the Conservative and Labour parties during the election. Though these fine parties made no rash promises to renege on afterwards, in certain ways their conduct was more insidious than that of the Liberal Democrats’ recent betrayal. It is a fact that for an opposition party, the Conservatives kept surprisingly quiet about the Browne review, and its likely recommendation of higher fees.

This isn’t to say the the Conservative party should have come out against higher fees. But it could have built support for them, rather than merely using the Browne review as an excuse not to talk about it (“we will … consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding”). In “considering carefully”, it colluded with the Labour party, by accident or design, to limit discussion and decrease choice on the issue at the ballot box. Such a course of action was, if intentional, clearly self-interested. Labour’s actions fare worse. Despite setting up a review clearly loaded, as shown by polarii’s recent article, to recommend higher fees, it refused to engage in discussion of the issue — then miraculously came out against the Browne review after the election.

So like MPs expenses, in many ways this is a ‘plague on all your houses’ issue, in spite of the visibility of the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal.

Part Two

In the Browne Stuff

In Education, Home Affairs on December 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

The Browne Review was greeted with uproar by students throughout the country, when it transpired that Browne recommended abolishing the cap for tuition fees and adding real-terms interest to the amount that graduates would have to pay back. It was felt that Browne was acting without any consideration for the equality of access to higher education nor the burden placed on students by tuition fee debt. This was felt correctly, because Browne was not asked to consider these things.

The terms of reference for the Review were solely about deciding the contribution that graduates, government, universities and employers should make towards university education:

“The Review will analyse the challenges and opportunities facing higher education and their implications for student financing and support. It will examine the balance of contributions to higher education funding by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers. Its primary task is to make recommendations to Government on the future of fees policy and financial support for full and part-time undergraduate and postgraduate students.”

There was a mention of widening access to higher education, but this was in the notes of the terms, not in the terms themselves. Nor did the terms allow much leeway for the Review to examine a graduate tax, due to the use of the word ‘fees’ in the terms. The previous Labour Government gave the review such terms, I would contend, to limit its scope.

This is further borne out by the composition of the seven member panel that delivered the report. Three, including the chair, were businessmen. Two were university vice-chancellors. One was a senior policy adviser to the OU, the and the remaining one a former senior Treasury official. Several groups were omitted: undergraduates, postgraduates, parents, teaching and researching academics. Why the Labour government thought it was prudent to leave these groups without representation remains unfathomable to me, since it is these groups primarily that will bear the brunt of whatever fee rises and cuts come.

With such terms and such a composition, it was almost inevitable that the Browne Review would find in favour of vastly higher fees, with the burden falling on students and parents, rather than government and business. It also blithely assumed around 80% cuts to the university budget overall, which was patently ludicrous (cuts stand at just over 7% for universities as a whole). Consequently, its findings were heavily stilted towards a student-funded university system.

But why would the Labour government do this? My personal view is that they were using the Browne review as a fall; when Browne recommended unlimited fees, the other Brown could defer a decision, and then set a cap around £7000, boasting that he had listened to hard-working students. This would be a massive PR coup, while lessening the financial burden on the government, and, to some extent, relieving the pressure on university budgets. The Coalition are wise, and they have attempted a similar ruse, capping the fees at £6000 (except in ‘exceptional circumstances’, where £9,000) and lauding the progressive elements that ensure lower earners pay back less now than before. Alternatively, Labour were setting a mess up for the Tories. But this latter view requires even more unbridled cynicism than the former.

As far as Browne’s terms of reference were concerned, that is, to plug the funding gap for universities as efficiently as possible, he has arrived at a valid and pretty good conclusion. However, considered against the socio-political backdrop of the UK – which he was neither asked nor equipped to consider – it is not such a good answer. And the problem won’t go away. Browne has some very odd ideas (the diminishing returns at higher fee rates and real-terms interest on loan repayments being the most glaring) but his basic solution – raising fees – has to be countenanced as part of solving the problem. Raising them above the level the government is prepared to loan to students would be an error, since it would discourage people in general, and people from less financially affluent backgrounds in particular, from attending certain universities such as Oxford, which would be reasonably entitled to charge the highest possible fee.

The Browne review is being widely criticised as bringing about the ‘death’ of education in this country. This is frankly wrong-headed. If anyone is responsible for this (if it is indeed happening) it is Vince Cable, who has chosen to allocate his departmental budget towards subsidy and vocational education rather than universities. If the Browne review was accepted unconditionally, which, incidentally, the government has not done, it would constitute a barrier to widening access to higher education. But if the government reflect upon it – as they are doing – and people who were not adequately represented in the review articulate their views clearly and respectfully, outcome can be, and indeed, has been reached.

The Browne Review was meant to produce a polarised proposition for university funding. There was uproar, but not surprise when it did. It is now up to government and students in conversation together to correct some of Browne’s excesses, so that we retain the tradition of good and fair education in this country. But politically, the previous government sought to land themselves, or their successors in the Browne stuff, because it will be less painful than having shockingly poor univerisities if this current policy continues indefinitely.

This article was first published in the Balliol Bulletin, the news-sheet of the Junior Common Room of Balliol College, Oxford. Republished with kind permission, and with minor stylistic changes. Any views expressed remain the author’s, and are in no way indicative of those of the Balliol JCR, or of Balliol College, or of Oxford University, or of any other person or party.

What to protest?

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on November 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

David Weber

To those watching the news last Wednesday, the question of what to protest, and who should protest, was a key one. Those towards the right might wonder what the point is of protesting higher tuition fees, given that poorer graduates will be better protected and universities forced to ensure wider social access. Those further to the left might also wonder what the point is of forcing such a small issue so high up the agenda, when far worse cuts are around the corner. Both will have different priorities, and both will wonder why their are not the issues being protested.

I identify with both these sentiments. Indeed, I see little difference, bar the emphasis on different lines of appeal, between the two positions. They can be complementary. It is their attitude to other questions which sets them apart, not their attitude toward this one. I personally agree with the goal of deficit reduction, provided it attempts to protect the poorest. I also do not instinctively support every cut made in the name of deficit reduction, and I think some of the “smaller” cuts can actually be more harmful.

I think my attitude towards the student protests in London was cemented by a picture I saw recently of an old school acquaintance with a group of friends. Two of them had placards protesting the fees rise. But another had a placard saying “Save EMA”. My view is that if you can’t see the competing values here, you’re in need of some educating.

The fact is that people weren’t marching against the abolition of EMA. They were marching against tuition fees and university cuts. If you thought EMA was more important, you should have stayed away from that march. Also, the sheer lack of prioritisation annoys me. You think supporting university students is important? Supporting core schooling is far more important. That generally determines whether or not you go to University to begin with.

Not only that, but EMA, perhaps unlike quite a lot of University spending, was efficiently spent. It provided a hard-nosed set of incentives so that pupils attended lessons, worked hard and met their target grades. It should be a model for government spending. Instead, it’s being scrapped, and most university students don’t seem to have noticed.

Generally, unless you genuinely think that no cuts to public spending should take place, students should shut up about tuition fees. The settlement has been more generous than people dared hope when the Browne review came out, and the fact is that, to again quote Polly Toynbee, students are fairly low down the pecking order. In terms of upfront support and the ability to make ends meet, they are significantly better supported today than they were in the 1990s, before tuition fees were even introduced. The march against tuition fees might encapsulate student anger, but more than anything it encapsulates mismatched priorities.

Even worse is the rush with which some students have defended the property damage at Millbank. Students have been quick to use excuses such as “the democratic process isn’t working” as a blanket defence for all action “taken against the state”. But the action wasn’t “taken against the State”. It was taken against a private party with links to the ruling politicians, and even then, it was hardly affected. 95% of those affected did not work for the Conservative party. So the vast majority of people affected were ordinary, non-affiliated workers. There’s a less than flattering label aimed at those who disrupt those lives in the name of fighting a battle against the State.

I’m not one to exaggerate, so I won’t use it. But I will say to those telling us to “pick a side” — do you know what that implies? War. Do you know what war involves? Generally a surplus of death and suffering. So unless you can tell me what side I am on — a student from a middle income background, receiving a full maitenance grant, and getting into more debt than the average student — and convince me of it, stop comparing this to a war. It isn’t one. Most of us do not, and will never divide easily into “sides”.

One final note: I agree with people that the Liberal Democrats could actually have done more than they have achieved on this issue. My position is perhaps not the obvious one: I don’t think they could have reasonably kept fees much lower. But I do think they could have committed the coalition to a timetable for bringing fees back down as the public finances improve. I can understand why they don’t want to, however, and it gives me hope for their essential nobility: I’d say any extra money floating around is probably much better to spend on the real losers of public spending cuts, not students.

Timeo Classicos et Dona Ferentis

In Education on October 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Latin and Ancient Greek are strange things for our education system to value. They are, after all, languages that are no longer used by a large group of people – though the Catholic Church uses Vulgar Latin and there are a few dedicated Latin programmes on various radio stations – and the attitudes embraced by the majority of the texts are most unhelpful. One need not turn far to find mysoginist attitudes, or impassioned defences of slavery, strongly anti-democratic sentiment, and the most ungracious suggestions about atheism. The Greeks, from whom the bulk of the authors in the two languages are drawn, were also racist to a great degree, describing anyone who did not speak Greek as ‘a barbarian’ – literally, one who goes ‘bar-bar-bar’. In fact, considering all this, it seems pointless if not unhelpful to teach our children to read these languages.

As a classicist, however, I strongly disconcur. For all their cultrual faults, Greek and Latin must enjoy a special place in the Western tradition. For it was in these languages that the disciplines of history, philosophy, mathematics, science, politics and philology are first recorded. A N Whitehead once described all of Western philosophy as a ‘footnote to Plato‘ the first of the Greek philosophers. Though Plato’s range is broad and his ideas dense and provocative, this may be overstating the case. However, since he came first, he has had a profound impact on the way we ‘do’ philosophy, and this is equally true, if not more true in other disciplines.

Take Euclid’s ‘Elements‘. He started by defining 4 (comparatively obvious) axioms, and went from there to prove many geometrical results. This axiomatic method has not been greatly bettered by mathematicians; most famoulsy, Whitehead and Russell’s ‘Principia Mathematica‘ merely reduced Euclid to a less intuitively obvious set of axioms. Although the mathematics has advanced, the method of the ancient Greeks is still used.

The same is true of the historians. Herodotus and Thucydides, the earliest historians, travelled, gathered evidence from oral anecdotes, eyewitnesses and inscriptions, tried to discriminate among them, and try to fit a pattern to events, explaining what occured. This is essentially history. Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ is the first known attempt to analyse the constitutions of states, and say which elements are good or bad. People are still compelled by the rhetoric of Cicero or Demosthenes, enraptured by the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles, inspired by the epics of Homer or Virgil, enchanted by the poetry of Ovid or Catullus. This is because the ancients are no different to the moderns – the same thoughts and desires motivate both; but the expression of these is defined against the ancients, since the ancients set them down first. Even if someone does something ‘new’, we only say that it is new because it is not like what has come before; the ancients.

Aside from this, the reasoning of the ancients, and reasoning in their languages, still permeates are society. The New Testament was written in Greek, for instance, and many people hold that it is a good basis for living. Other ideas are more subtle. The idea of a ‘spiritual’ part of identity is first seriously postulated by Plato, and has been ingrained in many strands of theological thinking. The scientific method has its origins in Aristotle’s ‘organon’, where he proposes looking at many things to understand their nature. Notions of all-conquering and all-excusing love are fully developed in Catullus, and few have rivalled Thucydides’ insight into the causes of civil war. The ancients don’t merely define the debate, they also contribute greatly to it.

On a more practical note, the skills the study of classical language teaches are over-looked, since it is not immediately applicable. After all, English has dispensed with the case-system, and with noun genders. But, if we look laterally a Latin text, it becomes an exercise both in verbal and non-verbal reasoning. We reason non-verbally, since we know that the ending ‘-os’ in Latin (regardless of what the rest of the word looks like or means) denotes a masuline accusative plural, and so must go with the other word ending in ‘-os’. Consequently, we now know that that noun, descibed by that adjective, is the object of the verb (or an indirect object with a preposition). Classical language teaches these non-verbal reasoning skills, how to piece together things simply from how they look, without us actually needing to know what any of the words mean – something, incidentally, which it is impossible to deduce in English, since has almost completely abandoned inflection. But it is also verbal reasoning: Latin presents a sentence of the form:’ master into villa in order that dinner he might eat he went’. It is a basic test to re-order the sentence into meaningful English: ‘The master went into [his] villa in order to eat [his] dinner.’

But there are also higher-level verbal reasoning tests in classical language. The Greek ‘logos’ means ‘word’. However, Homer says, after a speech: ‘and all the Achaeans heard his logos’, whereas Plato might comment after a particularly good postulation: ‘your logos is very sound indeed’. It is a verbal reasoning skill to realise that ‘logos’ in Homer means ‘speech’ and in Plato ‘argument’.

Ultimately, the lack of immediate use for Latin and Greek is a deterrent for some. However, for those that choose to pursue them, it is obvious that the study of them, while it has its own pleasures (and who is not enchanted by the Odyssey in some way?), teaches skills beyond the ability to translate the languages themselves.

But even then, there is an more-or-less immediate use. Extending your Latin or Greek vocabulary will probably extend your English. Some are obvious: confligare (lat) – to set alight; conflagration (eng) – fire. tele (gk) – far; visum (lat) – to be seen; television (eng) – that which is seen from afar. Some are more convoluted: kunos (gk) – dog; which became the name of the ‘kunikes’ – a group of philosophers that refused to believe anything, and hence, cynic. Or even: persona (gk/lat) – theatre mask; while the same word in English has come to mean a personality that someone dons, not just a mask. And some are frankly obscure, take Stentor of the loud war-cry, who features in Homer. He has given us the word ‘stentorian’ – excessively loud. With around 60% (lat. per centum – for each 100) of the words in English having a Greek or Latin origin, it is not unsurprising that study of these languages vastly improves vocabulary.

Even beyond this, the features we identified as unattractive beforehand may not be so unattractive. Reading ancients defend their beliefs, so radically different, yet startlingly similar in places, causes us to reconsider our beliefs, and think of them in a different light. No classics teacher, to my mind, says that we should accept everything the ancients hand down; certainly not the gold-mining giant ants in Herodotus, at any rate. But thinking about what they believed and why leads to interesting perspectives on what we believe, and why; perspectives that, had we stifled debate, may not have come to light. Classicists are renowned for being adaptable to a ranger of exotic worldviews – partly because they have engrossed themselves in some radically different ones for their studies.

However, since Latin and Greek are not on the national curriculum, there has been a drop in uptake of these subjects at every level, excepting at university, where growth is only seen on courses that teach a language alongside history and literature from scratch. It was muttered that the last government had it in for classics – making it increasingly difficult for state schools to offer small class sizes (which account for the greater percentage of classics classes) and allowing classics exams to become monopolised under one body. This body attempted to change the examining structure leading to protests two years ago in London, and what looks now like a mounting volume of appeals against the board in Classical A-Levels. The subjects have gone from a staple of the English school system to a sideline.

Traditionally, classics has been seen as the preserve of the literate and well-educated. My contention is that education in the classics greatly assists one in becoming literate and well-educated. For sure, some people will not want to study Latin and Greek; they should not be forced to, just as people who don’t want to study philosophy aren’t forced to. But we should give many more people the option of studying these languages, given the incredible range of skills and profound impact upon our culture and thinking they have had.

[Apologies to Virgil for the title: see Aeneid II 49]

Soapbox Radio: “John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and friends talk education”

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology on August 26, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Here, slightly belatedly, is the second episode our podcast. Episode 2 was recorded on the 18th of August, but due to an editing job of nightmarish proportions is only now being released. Episode 3 should follow shortly.

In this episode Stephen Wan and David Weber were joined by David Bagg, who contributes articles regularly to TDS as polarii, often with a historical slant. We spent no small time discussing David (Bagg)’s vision of freeing education, then wound up by discussing whether the top 10% richest should unilaterally pay for the deficit crisis.

A Democracy Does Not Want Great Men

In Constitutional Spotlight, Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight on August 4, 2010 at 11:23 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Democracy (3 of 3)

The title statement, arising from an anonymous English politician, immediately rubs against all our instincts. It suggests that democracy, in whatever sense we understand it, does not encourage its citizens to excel (by the way, when I say ‘man’, I mean ‘human’). However, this is to invite only one interpretation of this quote. There is ‘want’ in the sense of ‘desire’ and ‘want’ in the sense of ‘lack’. If we say that a democracy does not lack great men, we feel much more comfortable about our democracy.

Let’s also take issue with the word ‘great’. It probably does not take its literal meaning of ‘large’. Democracies have many other things to worry about than the physical stature of their electors, although I shan’t deny that it has been an influencing factor in some policy decisions. It invites ‘great’ as either something like ‘of great influence or authority’ or ‘of great moral worth’. The concept that moral living does not necessarily lead to great political clout is easily established (eg Buddha), as is the idea that political clout does not imply moral excellence (eg Adolf Hitler). Of course, they can come together (eg Martin Luther King), and we could select any number of people who are neither politically influential nor morally excellent. Moral excellence and political influence do not seem to be causally related. In an ideal world, we’d like moral people to be influential, and influential people to be moral. We should consider this at greater length, especially in the light of democracy.

Previously (On Democratic Behaviour), we established that an elected representative in a Western democracy should walk a tightrope between reporting and reflecting the views of their constituents and holding their own personal and political principles. The question is whether such men need to be ‘great’, or indeed are great by definition, and whether our understanding of democracy affects our perception of whether it is good or bad that they be great.

To return once more (and for the final time) to ancient democratic Athens: there was some confusion about this question. On the one hand, the Athenians convincingly argued that each and every of their citizens was great, or at least greater than other Greeks, because of their democratic freedoms. However, they also had a mechanism called ostracism, whereby a citizen would be forced to leave the city for ten years simply because he was wielding too much influence. This would suggest that Athenian democracy did indeed not want great men in either sense of the word; they did not lack them in a polity of 30,000 citizens, nor did they desire a really great man to remain in the city. The ostracisms were often couched in the sense that ‘this person’s influence is diminishing that of the people’, that the greatness of an individual would undermine the greatness of the citizen body. By this device, the Athenians successfully alienated almost all their most inspired statesmen: Themistocles, whose foresight saved all Greece from Persian invasion; Cimon, Athens’ most prodigious general; Alcibiades, Athens’ most brilliant statesman; Thucydides, the greatest of the ancient historians; and others besides. This policy probably caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War, which eventually led to democracy’s destruction at the hands of a repressive oligarchy. The issue of great men – and great men not behaving democratically; many of the ostracised went off to fight for the other side – and a quite unsophisticated approach to it led to Athens’ downfall.

The theologian C S Lewis, in his ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’, in which he makes suggestions in the voice of the Devil, notes that the Hellish solution would be simply to so diminish the education system that any man capable of greatness would have any delusions of greatness and excellence, in any field, let alone those of virtue and statesmanship, thrust from his mind as grossly undemocratic while he was still young. Thus we find that this Hellish sort of democracy simply does not desire great men. Interestingly, Screwtape likens this to the policy of the Greek tyrants. This invites the definition of democracy that Athens tended towards; that democracy existed simply to enact the whim of the populace, whether it was beneficial to the state or not. It falls prey to the critique in Aristotle’s question. And we have to say any system that represses excellence in all its citizens has to be bad. If democracy is beneficial to the state, it will encourage and nurture moral and/or political greatness in at least some of its citizens. However, if we swing radically in the other direction, and say of democratic leaders that they should pursue greatness even to the expense of those they represent, we will approach Marx’s ideas, that democracy should be suspended until the populace has been educated by those enlightened, which is not democracy at all. We thus have to arrive at the middle ground between these two ideas; a place where democracy finds itself desiring and not lacking great men.

The key then, is to find some way to ensure that the greatness of these great men is directed to the amelioration of the state, rather than to their own greatness, and some way to ensure that new greatness is not curtailed. This is why the situation in Plato’s Republic is so appealing on many different levels to so many; the ‘Guardians’, a class selected not by birth but by propensity for moral virtue, governing with the consent of the governed as kings, but directing their greatness (moral and political) towards everyone’s benefit. It is interesting that, even in this earliest of texts, the ideal is seen as a fusing of moral and political greatness, which is provocative in an age where we are happy for our cabinet members to be adulterous, our Prime Ministers to tell half-truths or untruths (but not lies, Mr Campbell reminds me), for our Lords to set down private and personal discussions and sell them for personal profit, and many of our elected representatives to accrue ridiculous salaries advising companies, and using their contacts, even before they leave office. But these things are easy to condemn, and much harder to fix.

It seems that our discussions have required that our political leaders be people of great humility. By this, I don’t mean walkovers; rather, people who appreciate that there are things more important than themselves and their own power or trinkets. This humility is a difficult thing to develop generally, but particularly in those who are being encouraged from a young age to be great, and especially in those who believe there is nothing greater than the pursuit of the glory of themselves. In my opinion, there are a couple of really easy strategies we can use to make it easier.

Firstly, we can carefully choose our representatives. This may mean swallowing our party line and voting for the person we genuinely believe to be the most humble. This assumes that we have a system of direct election of our representatives, with one person per constituency, and that is something that we should keep, because if we do not, it becomes more important for an MP to cosy up to his party than serve his constituents. Imagine if Parliament were filled with humble people seeking the best for the country: how much better would our government be if people thought first of others and not of themselves or of their party? To aid this consideration, it is important that a local community get to know their MP. If people used this as their primary consideration, there would be less of these MPs like Jack Dromey lifted as if by crane into ‘safe seats’. In fact, the only ‘safe seats’ would be for those MPs who consistently served with humility their constituents; this shift in voting attitude will do more to sort out the problem of ‘safe seats’ than any voting reform.

This leads onto a second point. We need to see an end to ‘professional politicians’; people who do nothing but sit around focus groups, read opinion polls, and worry about being ‘electable’. Unfortunately, the two parties in government are led by people who have been employed in political occupations for much of their life, and this is also true of the front-runners of the Labour leadership contest. That’s why the field has become increasingly younger; politicians are not doing jobs outside politics before venturing into politics. That’s why the Romans set minimum age limits on their offices of state; people had to do something else before becoming a politician. What the Romans sought to avoid, and what the UK is increasingly getting, is a less effective and less humble legislature, as those who have experience of business or education or any ‘real world’ field are marginalised by those who pander to the electorate without much knowledge of what they are doing. I do not advocate withdrawing a living wage from MPs or raising the minimum age limits for MPs or even ministers; a cultural shift will be much more effective. Incidentally, one thing we could do is vastly cut the salary of ministers so that there is limited fiscal advantage to being one, by this device hoping to ensure that only those who genuinely want to serve in such a capacity serve as ministers. The Romans tried not paying their magistrates anything, and it let to rampant corruption. Late Republican Rome was so corrupt, that they couldn’t even convict people of corruption because of excessive bribery of juries. We do not want the same in this country.

Thinking about people who actually want to serve their communities also puts paid to these politicians, who often arrive about two years before a general election to nobble the local party. Humility and desire to serve the local community will also manifest itself in specific ways. Good representatives will be able to listen to whatever members of the community ask for attention. This does not require people to come from the same social group. For instance, I am a white, male, private-school educated, affluent, well-spoken, conservative, evangelical Christian. It does make associating with a black, female, uneducated, poor, English-as-third-language, socialist, liberal Hindu difficult. But if I have enough humility, it is possible, particularly if I have built up a reputation for being principled and caring in the constituency over a significant number of years.

This is particularly important in the latest incarnation of the left, where the majority of its leading figures have been educated at exclusive schools and attended exclusive universities. The left has been the traditional voice of the poor, a group that it is very important society hear. If we find, on the left particularly, but ideally elsewhere, a group of well-educated yet humble people, who are prepared to live among the poor and experience poverty, who passionately and humbly pursue their welfare among the corridors of power, then society is in a healthy state. If, however, we find, as I increasingly think, a group of people who have no real concept of poverty or desire to talk to and serve the poor, we find candidates on the left looking increasingly hollow, as well as the poor losing their voice. That, I think, is what is happening in this Labour leadership contest; the front-runners are not as passionate as we would like about what they believe and not as humble as they need to be government. Perhaps this is part of New Labour’s victory of style and spin over substance. Or perhaps it’s part of a general problem on the left. Or perhaps I have no authority to speak on it at all.

These criticisms can be levelled at the right as well in various areas. But ultimately, if humility begins to be ingrained in our culture, however that happens, our democracy will never find itself wanting either in the sense of lacking or desiring great men. This is because if all the great men are humble, they become truly great. And our democracy will not desire greatness in its citizens, since it – and its constituent citizens  – will not desire to be great for themselves, since they are humble. But cultural shifts are hard to manage, and I doubt many people will shift their opinions simply by reading the seemingly random ramblings of some classicist blogger in the UK.

This is the last in a series of article s considering democracy and related issues. The articles beg the question, does the author actually believe in democracy? The author probably doesn’t, if he’s honest. But, insofar as it works in preserving a broadly virtuous and stable state for all its nuances, imperfections and downright flaws, it will do. To complete the quote with which I began this trilogy: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time throughout history.”

Click here to read the first article in the series.

A policy a day…

In Education, Home Affairs on February 16, 2010 at 9:54 pm

By David Weber

…or maybe not. However, it is my intention to blog more about policy in the lead up to the election, particularly given the interesting debate that kicked off recently concerning University tuition.

Indeed, I think I’ll start here, albeit by focusing on a different form of funding than tuition fees. I refer to, as many will have read in the news, the slowly simmering furore over government funding cuts.

It is firstly worth pointing out one thing, it is quite possibly the idea of the civil service that cuts in funding made today will be matched by the coming rises in tuition fees. This appears to be inevitable, by analysing precendent: the last time a government wished to increase university fees without making it an election issue, it did so by taking exactly the same action as this one has – setting up a review on tuition fees to report after the coming election. One wonders if this sort of behaviour could not be regulated by law, for it is a most pernicious practice, damaging to the practice of democracy in this country, which is limited as it is, with a single election deciding 90% of the political issues we have the means to influence.

Indeed, were raises to tuition fees to come into being immediately (say by doubling the cap on fees, or alternatively removing it), the policy of cuts to government HE funding would be more logical. Due to the unique way in which Higher Education is increasinly both seen and funded (as a personal investment made by adults), off-setting the costs away from government to students as recovery gets underway could be an intelligent way for governments to cut spending. Albeit probably a limited one.

One thing which the row shows very much, apart from the rather nasty way in which Sussex University appears to have piled pressure on the government (by threatening to cut funding to historical research, which has seen even Simon Heffer attack this spending cut, which makes his column considerably more interesting than usual), is how contentious spending cuts really are. Forget the wishy-washy “hard realism” that the Conservative party have attempted to claim for themselves in recent months; the bitter fact is simple: people might believe in spending cuts, but only until they know what they are. Then they become SEPs. (Someone Else’s Problem, Should bE Protected.)

The fact is that, as demonstrated by the aforementioned argument, University funding cuts are relatively painless compared to some of the other areas of spending. Which is why the row has been simmering rather than boiling over. However, the fact that it has been this visible will not be pleasant news for the Shadow Cabinet’s long term plans.

My Turn on Higher Education

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology on January 14, 2010 at 3:06 pm

By Rob Brown

I agree with both Stephen Wan and David Weber on different points, but neither concludes how I have. It is necessary at this point to contextualise myself, I am a modern socialist and an active member of the Labour Party, I am also a first year undergraduate who is likely to be hit by any increase in tuition fees.

Firstly I am in agreement with David; university must be seen as a private investment. We must understand that, the people in HE are human capital investing in their future. I should make a profit in going to university, and the statistics argue that the profit will be massive. Look, for example, at this publication by the Royal Economic Society pp. 9, for an economic argument for the private returns to university. Notice in particular the percentage gaps in wages for graduates against non-graduates. For further evidence consult this paper the graphs pp. 3-4 clearly indicate a massive return to education and an ever increasing gap throughout the length of a career. As such in my eyes it is fair to expect those at university to pay for at least some of their tuition. Let us not forget that university is still subsidised massively by the government.

Labour is giving every 18 year old a right to public funding so that they can continue their education or training

These studies also show that at least until 2007 (the latest figures I have) that degrees have not devalued at all (contrary to both David and Stephen’s presumption) and have actually become more valuable. This is due to an increase in relative demand for graduate workers with respect to the increase in relative supply of graduate labour; the market analysis clearly demonstrates that Stephen’s statement that university should be kept for those “really at the top” is wrong. As such I believe it is one of Labour’s key achievements to open up more university places than ever before, and this is why it is a target for the next term of Labour government to enable 50% of young people access to a university place. This is not, as some claim, forcing young people into unsuitable education, but it is a figure that surveys show matches the aspirations of young people. Stephen indicates that he would want to see people in appropriate education, I agree and would ask for the appropriate praise for this Labour government: introducing accredited apprenticeships enabling young people to earn whilst learning, there will be 285,000 of these in 2010; setting aside £1bn for Train to Gain; and prioritising youth unemployment during this recession. Let us not forget the key pledge that Labour is giving every 18 year old a right to public funding so that they can continue their education or training; at university or at college; in work or an apprenticeship – until they are 25 or they get a level 3 qualification. Labour has provided a range of opportunities to all, and most importantly stimulated a climate of aspiration and choice in education.

Both David and Stephen indicate they favour a redistributive system, but fall short of giving credit where credit is due. The current system is redistributive; grants are given to poorer students at a decreasing rate inversely relative to household income, two thirds of students will receive at least a partial grant. Obviously there are holes and administrative problems but the redistributive principle is in place. It is here that I agree with Stephen, the Tory plans are actually regressive, in a way he describes brilliantly.

The reason I think the current tuition fee, student loan system is a fairly good one is because it allows people to pay back their loan according to their future income. The interest on a student loan is the inflation rate meaning there is no increase in the loan in real terms (exempting a small period of negative inflation), if a student does not earn after university they will not have to pay back their loan, the loan repayments are fairly generous and relatively low percentage of income, and most importantly the loan is not counted against you when applying for credit (a mortgage for example). The idea that we are forcing millions of young people into unfair debt is a misconception. Returning to a grant system (or any system where the government take a larger role in financing HE), would cause a greater fiscal disincentive for the government to create university places, and as I have already indicated greater access to university is what I am most proud of with respect to Labour and HE.

The principle of choice within education, the idea of HE being a private investment for individuals and the importance of social mobility, redistribution and fairness to be accounted for in the system are all areas of consensus. I would argue that it is these things that have been aimed towards in Labour policy and it is only through Labour that opportunities and aspirations will continue to be stimulated.

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.