This site is not about the Browne Review ( or Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: an independent review of higher education funding & student finance as we should properly call it) itself, but since that is what sparked this website we thought we should explain why we think it’s rubbish, and dangerous rubbish at that. This rather long I’m afraid.
We can’t afford free university education, right?
Firstly it is necessary to point out that the idea that the UK can no longer afford free university education is nonsense. If we were the kind of people to call politicians liars, we might even call it a lie. In part the politicians have chosen to spend the money on other things. The lie that we ‘can’t afford’ free education has been exposed by the Scottish and Welsh governments, who have chosen to spend the money that the Westminster government refuses to.
So how much would it cost for government to scrap the current tuition fees and provide free education? Two and a half billion pounds a year. That only sounds a lot if you’re not familiar with the size of government budgets. The cost of the NHS has been hovering around the £100bn mark, and the annual cost of the War in Afghanistan was in 2009 reported to have jumped from £2.5bn a year to £4.5bn a year. New estimates of the full cost of a Trident nuclear missile system put it at £76 billion, or 38 years of free education, yet the government is still seriously considering commissioning it. The bank bail-out cost around £850 billion.
But the dishonesty goes further than this. “There’s no money left,” the government are fond of saying (until they want to bail out Ireland, or fight an unwinnable war, or give overpriced contracts to outsourced service providers, but let’s ignore that for a moment). But it isn’t solely a matter of how the money is distributed. A government budget is not like a household budget – it does not come out of a finite pot of money. While there isn’t an infinite amount of money exactly, it is possible to ‘create’ more money by investing in current or future productivity. The government has chosen not to do this, and they have chosen it because of their ideology.
The website false economy is a good resource for looking at why the government’s claim that ‘there isn’t any money’ is nonsense. And the NCAFC website explains more about why it isn’t unreasonable to demand free education.
So the government has simply chosen not to spend the money on education, and their reasons for wanting a marketised system, in which students will consume a product – education – offered by institutions competing for their money, are outlined in the Browne Review. Sort of. Here is Lord Browne’s argument in favour of a marketised education system:
The rationale for seeking private contributions to the cost of higher education is strong and widely accepted.
That’s the crux of it really. Well, okay, there’s a little bit more but not a lot:
Students will control a much larger proportion of the investment in higher education. They will decide where the funding should go; and institutions will compete to get it. As students will be paying more than in the current system, they will demand more in return.
That’s it. That’s the argument. Well, more of an unevidenced statement or declaration than an argument, but why do you need arguments when you have an ideology? As if to underline this, in the ‘other options’ section of the report there is only the option of a graduate tax. The option of free education is never discussed.
An ideological belief in market solutions is quite common among politicians globally. There are arguments to be made for and against markets but we have got to the point where the arguments rarely need to be made. The benefits of market solutions are thought to be ‘obvious’ to all. Yet the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the dead oilworkers are a product of that market system, as is the constant flow of oil we know is damaging the planet. If those factors appear in business decisions at all they simply appear as a ‘cost’ in the cost/benefit analysis – such as in the analysis for cutting safety procedures. While no one writing for this site is interested in some big centralised socialist state, we can see some of the flaws in markets based on evidence, some of which can be found in the life of Lord Browne.
But maybe this ideology will turn out to work…
One interesting thing about the ideological solution the government has proposed for education is that we can spot it as ideology – rather than the pragmatic solution it is claimed to be – partly because it doesn’t even work on its own terms.
A market works by choice, but actually it only works well where the consumer has the chance to make repeat choices, changing their choices every time in the light of information gained from the previous consumption experience. So it doesn’t work that well if you are only consuming a product once. Guess what? You only do one degree. You only make the choice once. If it turns out to be the wrong choice, sure you can write a bad review of the university, but then future students are dependent on perfectly flowing information, which never happens – and in fact that flow of information will be actively impeded by University PR departments, bogus league tables that are nothing to do with individual experiences, and a host of other factors.
Another problem is that markets work according to what people are prepared to pay. That is, the quality of a product or the viability of a product, changes or becomes more desirable according to what people are prepared to pay for it. But for this process to work properly, the ‘price signal’ from the consumer, or the payments they are willing to make, have to come from the beneficiary of the product. If there is a disconnect between the beneficiary of the product and the decision to make payment (as in public sector procurement, say), the price signal does not do its job and the market does not function.
So, who benefits from degrees? A lot of people, it turns out. Not just the person who did the degree, but their family, their employer, their community (educated people do more community work according to studies) and in a wide but meaingful sense, society. So we have a broad array of beneficiaries of university degrees, but only one individual – the person doing the degree – making the decision about whether to pay and how much. The price signal does not function correctly, since it does not represent the actual need for the product, and so the market will not function.
And apart from it not working, why shouldn’t we marketise education?
- It will force people to value what they learn in economic terms. We can all think of many good reasons for learning, for instance, history – so as not repeat the mistakes of the past for example – but it is difficult to think of the economic justification for studying history since it won’t be very helpful for getting a job. High tuition fees will force students to think in economic terms and so downplay the other benefits of education.
- By focussing solely on economic outputs it ignores the role of academia as critic of society. The changes are actively removing funding from ‘social’ courses because Lord Browne and this government consider them ‘unimportant’ to the economy compared to science and so on. But we all instinctively know that without critics almost anyone can start acting like a mad dictator, and there’s no reason to think that society is an exception. There are other critics of society but deliberately removing funding from humanities and social science courses is going to seriously reduce the pool of critics.
- Because it will encourage students to see themselves as passive consumers of something the university provides, rather than active players in their own education. Universities do provide lectures and seminars to students, and they should be of a high quality, but the real education comes from students taking the initiative themselves, not demanding that universities lay it all on for them.
- The differing prices of universities will create a two-tier education system with a set of elite universities that are more likely to be attended by people from well-off backgrounds. If we look at Oxford and Cambridge we know this happens already. With different prices for different universities, it will be worse.
- The increased fees will put off students from poorer backgrounds from going. While it’s true that they won’t have to pay it back until they are earning, the psychological effect of the idea of £30,000 of debt on families who rarely have more than a few hundred pounds to spend is pretty obvious. Meanwhile there will be many ‘lower middle class’ families squeezed in the middle, not qualifying for the extra assistance the poorest families can get but with parents whose income is already committed.
So if this ideology is so ill-suited to be applied here, why are Lord Browne and the government using it? Well, it will lead to lower taxes for corporations and the rich. That might be a clue. It’s the only clue we can think of in fact. The politicians and business leaders adopt the ideology when it suits them, and abandon it just as quickly when it suits them – think of the banking crisis, when state assistance became suddenly and surprisingly acceptable. Tuition fees mean lower taxes for the Lord Brownes of this world, and that’s the bottom line.