The right protest for the wrong reasons

We’ve been here before.  At the student march on the 10th November, all my memories came flooding back – young men and women with fluorescent hair and matching T-shirts, the shouts of ‘What do we want: free education!  When do we want it: now!”, the adrenaline that comes from being a single individual within a happy, angry crowd.  So for a moment 2010 felt just like 2002, bringing back a tidal wave of my own nostalgia for the protests against top-up fees.

But after the protests, I changed my mind.  I now think it’s unarguable that graduates should pay for the cost of their education.  Still, fees are the wrong way of doing this – and not just slightly, technically, wrong.  For reasons I’ll explain, fees are sufficiently wrong that they sent me out on the streets again, back alongside the student protestors I recognised from eight years ago.

To begin with, though: what changed my mind about free higher education?  Overall there are three findings that make a persuasive case.  Firstly, people who go to university personally reap the rewards for this, as my friend Timo Idema has summarised.  It’s hard to argue that I should be subsidised for going to university by non-graduates, given that I’m likely to earn considerably more as a result.  Secondly, and counterintuitively, tuition fees were one of the more redistributive measures that New Labour introduced.  Universities are dominated by the already advantaged – people like me, in fact – and the means-tested tuition fees meant lower subsidies for people from wealthier families.

Social mobility

Neither of these are ‘killer arguments’ though – they’re just not quite convincing enough.  What really clinches the argument is that  increasing fees will probably have no effect on social mobility. This seems surprising – Yaz Osho has already written here about how poorer students are more likely to be deterred by high fees.  Research shows how poorer students are more likely to be debt-averse, and that middle-class students are more likely to use student loans even though they have less need for them.  Indeed, such arguments were the very reason I cared so much about fees to start with.

Yet I strongly doubt that the increases in tuition fees will have any effect on inequalities in HE.  (Although the idea that expanding HE has been mainly taken by poorer students is laughable, and requires a serious attempt to misrepresent the evidence).

To begin with, increased fees will have relatively small impacts on incentives – particularly given the concessions that the student protests have forced from the Coalition.  The Government seem to have taken up the Sutton Trust’s suggestion to give students from low-income households their first year of tuition for free, and have raised the salary level at which tuition fees will be repaid.  The similar bundle of raised fees and means-tested support in the face of the previous protests doesn’t seem to have caused declining participation (although I’m interested if anyone has other analyses on this).  And the NUS plan for the graduate tax looks pretty similar to the latest versions of the raised fees.   Whatever the details – and the details definitely matter – it  doesn’t look like it will be a big enough difference between schemes to have a noticeable impact on mobility.

Obsessing about universities, though, is fundamentally missing the point.  Earlier in the year I was dazzled by a presentation from the Nobel-winning economist James Heckman.  He convinced me that HE structures are of minor importance in HE inequalities compared to everything that comes before them; indeed, disadvantaged students start doing worse at school from an incredibly young age, and relatively little changes after this.  His answer?  That we should focus on early-years provision, which can give disadvantaged students the cognitive and non-cognitive skills to have a better chance of going to university 15 years down the line.  If the end of free education is the price we have to pay to have Surestart, then it’s worth it.

The right reasons for opposing fees

Despite this, the increase in fees and massive cut in state funding will be a disaster – for more reasons than one.

It is simply incredible that the Coalition want to end state funding for arts, humanities and social sciences.  By doing this, the Tories and Liberals are telling the country they see no wider value of these subjects – a view that has been wonderfully skewered by Stefan Collini, and was one of the prompts for the Campaign for the Public University.  There is no reason to think that this wider value can be maintained through a market mechanism; as any half-decent economist – in fact, even the bad economists – will tell you, anything that has positive side-effects to other people (‘positive externalities’) will be under-provided by the market.

This cavalier attitude to the fabric of British society can also be seen in the sorts of jobs that graduates are likely to do.  A top US university replaced loans with grants in the early 2000s, leading to a wonderful experiment reported by Rothstein and Rouse in 2007.  They found that “debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs”.  Even if we later cancel these debts for people who do socially valuable work, another experiment shows that we prefer avoiding fees than repaying debts, implying that people’s career choices will still be affected.  And this is without the vaguer, more unpredictable effects on society, with research suggesting higher fees may lead to lower marriage rates and fewer children.

For those of us wanting academic careers, working in universities will be revolutionised.  My own university, LSE, has denied that it has any plans to become private – but given that the entire teaching grant will be abolished, it surely is only a matter of time before this happens.  (If the 2004 top-up fees vote had been on the level of fees being discussed today then it would never have got through Parliament.  Yet within a few years, this rise becomes accepted and even inevitable.  Such is the nature of politics).  Inequalities between universities will also deepen.  My own union UCU thinks that a third of universities are at risk from these reforms, and this will be acute among those that teach students who go on to socially valuable but not highly paid jobs.  Academic pay will vary more between the richer and poorer universities.  And Claire Callender and Jonathan Jackson’s research suggests that poorer students are more likely to go to universities with low living costs that have easy term-time work – meaning that the already highly segregated student populations may become even more so.

The fierce debate on social mobility has led to a much better proposal going through Parliament than would otherwise have happened – just as we saw in 2004.  Hopefully the ridiculous incentive for universities charging over £6,000 to avoid poorer students will be axed.

But more fundamentally, the obsession with social mobility has become a distraction.  The real damage in raising fees rather than a graduate tax lies elsewhere – and as the Bill goes to the Lords and then back to Parliament for its Third Reading, we can but hope that this comes increasingly to the fore.

Ben Baumberg is a PhD student in Social Policy at LSE, and co-edits the collaborative research blog Inequalities.

Categories: Higher Education

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5 replies »

  1. A good article that shifts the perspective in an interesting and important way.

    May I recomend the About Lord Browne webiste for more thought provoking analysis on what is wrong with the current governmental approach to higher education funding.


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