What big teeth you have grandma!

by Chris Bertram on December 7, 2010

Tomorrow sees a vote in the House of Commons on the principle of whether to triple the fees charged to undergraduate students at UK universities and to completely withdraw state funding from all subjects except science, medicine and engineering. That’s the headline proposal, the reality is somewhat more complex since the changes are accompanied by a government-sponsored student loan scheme under which those who fail to secure reasonably paid jobs will not be required to pay and will eventually be forgiven their debt (so some of the cost will end up falling to the taxpayer). The other uncertainty surrounds the level of the permitted fee: government has said that it will only allow a £9000 charge if universities do certain as-yet unspecified things to widen access, but £6000 will usually be inadequate to cover costs.

Whether the changes are distributively regressive or progressive (compared to the status quo) is a matter of some controversy, but the assumption that is is progressive depends on assumptions about future government behaviour (around the adjustment of thresholds for repayment) that are perhaps optimistic. Most of the early evidence suggests that prospective students from low-income figures will be deterred from higher education by the headline figure of the debt they will face (perhaps many many times their current family income) even though the reality is not as scary as that scary scary figure. I’ve been arguing with some other philosophers on a comments thread at Leiter , some of what is below recapitulates that, and some of it is a bit rantish. Apologies for that.

The proposals are being sold to the public on two grounds: 1. that they are part of a cuts package that is needed to reduce the UK’s deficit, 2. that it is unfair to expect the less well-off, whose children do not attend university, to subsidise the children of the better-off who do. The first of these claims ought not to persuade anyone who buys the Krugman/Stiglitz line on defecit reduction, the second claim (a) ought to be false if general taxation is sufficiently progressive and (b) appears to rest on some principle that only the direct beneficiaries of a public scheme ought to pay for it, a claim with frightening implications elsewhere (why not introduce a charge-and-loan scheme for all post-16 education?).

The introduction of the changes is politically toxic because before the general election the Liberal Democrat party, one of the Coalition partners, promised to oppose any increase in fees. The leaders of the LDP are currently trying to claim that since they did not win the election outright, their manifesto commitments are void and superseded by the coalition agreement with the Conservatives. This is implausible, for the simple reason that their MPs made individual pledges to oppose fee increases and used these to garner student votes. These read: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. There are endless photos on the interwebs of LibDem MPs holdng up placards with these words. Unsurprisingly, students are upset and have reacted by staging a series of demonstrations and occupations against the cuts. I support them.

Academics are divided. Elite institutions, which lobbied hard for the proposals in their latest form, clearly look forward to a bright future in which they do not depend for the bulk of their funding on direct taxation. Some academics at those institutions have persuaded themselves that, given that there are going to be cuts, and given that these are not among the cuts that immediately and directly harm the poorest in society, they have reason to support the proposals. They will still have good students to teach, academic salaries and employment at those institutions won’t be hit too hard, this is the best deal on offer. (Personally, I’m appalled by the prospect of teaching the finer points of egalitarian justice in an elite institution to the children of the wealthy who will then go on to high-paid jobs in the financial sector, whilst higher education as a whole contracts and access to the arts and humanities is reduced in an increasingly unequal society.)

This self-persuasion may also be easier for people who have bought into a “social mobility” interpretation of what social justice requires, promoted by NuLab and now enthusiastically endorsed by Nick Clegg. If you see universities overwhelmingly through the optic of access to labour-market advantage and you think that social justice is about opportunities for this, then a scheme that loads the costs onto the direct beneficiaries can start to look plausible. In my view, a conception of social justice that confines itself to equalizing opportunties to get a better position in a system of radically unequal outcome is a radically deficient conception. A scheme where higher educatation conferred fewer differential benefits because fewer such benefits existed would be a superior one. In any case, intergenerational equity clearly also matters for justice, and the current proposals have the further downside that they shift the costs of higher education from those who themselves enjoyed free education (such as most current higher-rate income tax payers) to the coming generations.

Justice isn’t the only relevant issue either. What we see here is the extension of the market principle into further areas of social life where it has hitherto been muted (though not silenced). The effects on the social and personal relationships within higher education are unpredictable. Certainly, the prospect is that such relationships will be more instrumentalized, in the short term they will also become more antagonistic. This is for the simple reason that students, paying or perceiving themselves to be paying three times more for their education will face educators with reduced resources with which to teach them. The answer to “what am I getting for my money?” will be “less, much less.”

The other non-justice issue concerns access to the good of higher education. Once the state provided no funding for education and then, starting in 1870 it expanded its support on the basis that all citizens are enriched by it. Eventually, free access to tertiary education became part of the package (with generous funding provision even for postgraduate study). This got tougher under Thatcher and still worse under Blair as Vice-Chancellors got their way and the existing “top-up” fees were introduced. Now that fee-paying is part of the culture, government has taken the opportunity to expand the principle. Whereas we might once have hoped that, as society became wealthier, ever wider access to the goods of higher education (and many other cultural goods) would be possible, now it seems that “we can’t afford it”. What was once an essential component of the good society—remember Harold Wilson’s enthusiasm for the Open University?—becomes an expensive luxury whose only acceptable public justification is economic benefit. So much for John Stuart Mill.

The wolf is at the door with a series of proposals. Some of my colleagues are attracted by the fact that one or two proposals are attractively wrapped and therefore want to dissociate themselves from those who want to fight the wolf. Some of them are heartened by the fact that the wolf is promising to take only a smallish bite from the universities and that the political alternative may be that it leaps for our jugular. I think they are deluding themselves. We need to build a movement to destroy the wolf and we ought to back those who are fighting it here and now rather than carping at them from the sidelines. It is such movements, ultimately, that defeat attempts to make society more unjust. It is also such movements that offer the chance that the principles of social justice that we talk about in our seminars will get implemented. There’s a further point: advocates of the proposals often talk of the judgement of the bond markets and prospects for capital flight being a hard constraint against which “realistic” policy must be formulated. But what is politically and socially acceptable is also a constraint for politicians, but only if we work at making it so. Perhaps there are those who believe that a tea-time chat with David Willetts (or his Labour equivalent) is a more effective strategy?

{ 57 comments }

1

Sam Dodsworth 12.07.10 at 2:16 pm

I endorse all of this, obviously. (Well, it’s obvious to me, anyway. I work in a university and I remember what my father went through as a lecturer in the 80s.) Maybe I can take this opportunity to put in a good word for the student protests? I’m very impressed with what they’ve achieved at UCL, where I work. The best news updates are on twitter (@UCLOccupation) but their website is well worth a look, too:

http://ucloccupation.wordpress.com

They can always use donations and/or expressions of support – both of which you can do from the website.

There’s also a fairly good article from the LRB, here, with background and impressions:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/2010/12/06/joanna-biggs/at-the-occupation

2

Chris Williams 12.07.10 at 2:32 pm

Good points, well made. I support them all. We need to make a fight of this one.

3

Tim Wilkinson 12.07.10 at 2:39 pm

Yep. Notice that the two arguments:

1. that they are part of a cuts package that is needed to reduce the UK’s deficit, 2. that it is unfair to expect the less well-off, whose children do not attend university, to subsidise the children of the better-off who do.

So a measure which affects all equally in nominal terms (thus in proportional terms impacts more heavily on those who, coming from poorer backgrounds, are far less likely to get the plum jobs, even if they do go to the same elite institutions) is presented as another way in which the rich are taking some 0f the pain.

BTW – did anyone notice that whenb UCL got an injunction to clear the occupied space on the questionable grounds that it was needed for exams, they also got a blanket injunction banning any demo anywhere on campus?

A general (and genuine) question – who are these VCs, and how has a state of affairs come about in which they appear to be inclined (or perversely incentivised) to be preoccupied with finance so much to the detriment of learning, e.g. abandoning the humanities? I mean obviously I kind of know how this sort of thing goes, in vague general terms, but I’d be interested in a well-informed analysis of the phenomenon.

4

dave heasman 12.07.10 at 2:43 pm

“I’m appalled by the prospect of teaching the finer points of egalitarian justice in an elite institution to the children of the wealthy “

I thought of not posting this because it looks like snark, but, Chris, aren’t you at Bristol? Isn’t this largely what you do now?

5

John Protevi 12.07.10 at 2:44 pm

Thank you, Chris. IMO, this is a key point:

… a “social mobility” interpretation of what social justice requires, promoted by NuLab and now enthusiastically endorsed by Nick Clegg. If you see universities overwhelmingly through the optic of access to labour-market advantage and you think that social justice is about opportunities for this, then a scheme that loads the costs onto the direct beneficiaries can start to look plausible. In my view, a conception of social justice that confines itself to equalizing opportunties to get a better position in a system of radically unequal outcome is a radically deficient conception.

6

Chris Bertram 12.07.10 at 2:51 pm

dave @4 – well yes it is, but you have to take the whole sentence into account, and it does cause me discomfort. 2 points though: I’m very committed to widening access at Bristol, and one reason I started blogging in the first place, was to try to connect to a wider audience (don’t know how successful that’s been).

7

Marc Mulholland 12.07.10 at 2:52 pm

So, Chris, ‘no’ also to a student graduate tax?

8

Rob 12.07.10 at 2:57 pm

“Personally, I’m appalled by the prospect of teaching the finer points of egalitarian justice in an elite institution to the children of the wealthy who will then go on to high-paid jobs in the financial sector, whist higher education as a whole contracts and access to the arts and humanities is reduced in an increasingly unequal society.”

I don’t want to be overly cynical, but for some time I’ve been operating under the impression that the first half of this conjunction was what I was (going to be) doing by being an academic political theorist anyway.

9

Chris Bertram 12.07.10 at 3:04 pm

Marc, well no to a graduate tax that carried (almost) the entire burden of supporting HE. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a proposal that included some graduate contribution. My beef is with those who see HE mainly through the lens of labour-market advantage, I don’t need to deny that there is _some_ private advantage and that we might recognise that in a reasonable compromise proposal.

However, I don’t think we’re now at a point where quibbling about the differences between hypothetical schemes is the right thing to do, politically. The Browne proposals, essentially fixed in advance and arrived at outside of the electoral process (at the instigation of Mandelson of course) need to be defeated and we need unity on a _no_ . Then some proper *and more representative* commission could examine the future of the sector. No doubt it wouldn’t give me exactly what I wan, but it might have legitimacy.

10

Chris Bertram 12.07.10 at 3:07 pm

Rob @8 – hmm … “If you’re an egalitarian how come you’re an egalitarian academic political theorist?”

11

Salient 12.07.10 at 3:08 pm

If you see universities overwhelmingly through the optic of access to labour-market advantage and you think that social justice is about opportunities for this…

…and you think 2. that it is unfair to expect the less well-off, whose children do not attend university, to subsidise the children of the better-off who do, then you’re basically giving up on the prospect of improving social equality, no? The argument in toto seems like self-refuting nonsense.

12

Zamfir 12.07.10 at 3:14 pm

but the assumption that is is progressive depends on assumptions about future government behaviour (around the adjustment of thresholds for repayment) that are perhaps optimistic. Most of the early evidence suggests that prospective students from low-income figures will be deterred from higher education by the headline figure of the debt they will face (perhaps many many times their current family income) even though the reality is not as scary as that scary scary figure.
Arguably, the main solution here should be campaigns to make sure people know the loans are good deals and won’t bankrupt you (and of course making sure those things are true). Under those circumstances, I can’t see the big problem with the measure.

Of course, it is still a cut to the public provision of goods, and there can be debate whether there should be such cuts at all. But assuming those cuts are needed, this seems like a much fairer cut than many others on the table.

13

Zamfir 12.07.10 at 3:18 pm

Addendum: my apologies, I underestimated how big the proposal is. The government here in the Netherlands is proposing similar measure but much more limited, and I transfered my opinion too quickly from one case to the other.

14

engel 12.07.10 at 3:26 pm

As someone who has, for the last few years, been fighting a one man internet war against any ‘philosophical egalitarian’ who will listen to random nobodies on this issue (not many, I might add) I am gratified to read this post.

‘Egalitarian’ philosophical defenders of such politics have corpses in their mouths.

15

enzo rossi 12.07.10 at 3:31 pm

I couldn’t agree more.

Chris’ last point about the need to firmly oppose this is especially worth stressing. Let me state the obvious. Taking the long view, it’s clear that this is yet another step in an incremental programme of radical neoliberal (for lack of a better word) social engineering, which has been going on in the West since the Seventies. Each time we supinely accept a new development in that direction we make it harder to resist the next. The introduction of top-up fees is a case in point. As Chris points out, some colleagues at elite institutions may think that this new development is not too bad for them, but I don’t think even they like the end of this slippery slope. So we should all support the students.

And the unions should join in. Not just the public sector ones: redundancies and bad working conditions in the public sector are bad for industrial relations in the private sector as well, as they make everyone’s bargaining position weaker. The movement needs unity and brutal audacity. The coalition is weak and it can be ousted (though the pathetically disoriented opposition is cause for some concern as to what would happen at the next election). In any case, I don’t think we can afford to pull any punches (metaphorical and not) at this point.

16

StevenAttewell 12.07.10 at 3:32 pm

Regarding the effect on poorer students: the evidence from the U.S case strongly suggests disincentive effects.

In any case, the overall arguments here are eerily similar to the U.C – higher tuition is ok, because we’ll just give more aid to working class kids. It’s not a good thing here, it won’t be a good thing there.
http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/rebuilding-the-public-university-against-high-aid-high-fees-model/

17

StevenAttewell 12.07.10 at 3:33 pm

* I have a follow-up to that piece in the process of writing, since I did additional research, but it’s not done yet.

18

christian_h 12.07.10 at 3:45 pm

Good post. Just to add: I know of no other commodity besides education (and yes that’s what it is fast becoming if it isn’t there already) in relation to which anyone would claim it is free if you pay for it with loans. Is someone’s house “free” if it is paid for with a mortgage? What this proposal does (and what is already happening here in the US) is increase even further the social and economic advantages of the children of the rich – what is being proposed is a future wage cut on the children of the less well off. Period.

In addition, quite apart from the fees issue, this proposal’s implementation will destroy parts of higher education in the UK, especially in the liberal arts and humanities. Any academic who supports this, is, in my view, either and idiot or evil.

The good news is that this can be stopped. This government isn’t Thatcher. They are weak, and can be brought down.

19

Steve LaBonne 12.07.10 at 3:48 pm

Can someone enlighten this non-Brit as to how in the world the Lib Dem backbenchers can swallow being asked to vote for outright Thatcherism?

20

Armando 12.07.10 at 3:53 pm

I agree with much of what you say, Chris, but your conclusion and opposition to the changes doesn’t follow for me. In fact, one can read the current proposals (as you acknowledge) as a subsidy on those degrees without labour market use. If a student goes to study medieval poetry and remains in low paid employment, their education will have cost them nothing. While this is simplistic, since the prospect of debt which activates at a certain income level is a cost of a sort, it is still worth mentioning as a good thing about the current proposals.

But my real disagreement is that while I mostly agree with you about what higher education should be doing, I think that you are too casually dismissing what it is doing. That is, one of the functions of higher education is to ensure that middle class children get a labour market advantage. This isn’t the only function, of course, but it is a function nonetheless. This means that one can be lead to conclude that subsidy of higher education drives social inequality. Now, you might protest that funding via progressive taxation mitigates against this, but this is only really true if the economic benefits of higher education are spread throughout society. Which they aren’t and aren’t likely to be.

Working class students will certainly be put off by these proposals, but nothing about the proposals make it particularly bad for them. In fact, at my university there is talk of bursaries to increase social diversity. However, there are far too many students whose schools are simply not up to the task of preparing them for education at a Russell group university, say, and so talk of social diversity in the context of higher education is moot. Its middle class families that will get hit by these proposals.

The point I’m trying to make is that the argument about social justice cannot be plausibly made about higher education in isolation. But we seem to have decided as a society that social justice in education is not a priority. I agree that we should change that, but I don’t see that these proposals make any real difference. In the same way that I don’t believe the charitable status of public schools (private schools to anyone outside the UK) does very much to advance social justice, even though it is routinely defended on such grounds.

21

Chris Bertram 12.07.10 at 4:10 pm

_Now, you might protest that funding via progressive taxation mitigates against this, but this is only really true if the economic benefits of higher education are spread throughout society. Which they aren’t and aren’t likely to be._

If there is any truth in all that Blairite guff about “the knowledge economy” then the economic benefits of HE are indeed spread throughout society.

_But we seem to have decided as a society that social justice in education is not a priority._

I think I missed the meeting when we decided that.

22

JulesLt 12.07.10 at 4:20 pm

The huge elephant in the room is how do any kind of deferred fees solve the (supposed) current budgetary crisis, other than in a book-keeping sense – i.e. I presume that money loaned to students and then paid to Universities can be accounted for differently from money given as expenditure to the Universities, but presumably the same amount of money needs to be raised from somewhere. But I can’t see any explanation as to how this helps solve the current deficit crisis.

(Although of course we also know the government are exploring privatising student loans, this won’t happen fast enough to have any meaningful budget impact in the short term).

I also think that if you can make a moral argument for tommorow’s students paying for their degrees, then it should really be applied retrospectively to those who didn’t pay but benefitted. This would at least cause a lot of people to not treat this as an easy decision to make because it only punishes future generations.

23

Armando 12.07.10 at 4:21 pm

If there is any truth in all that Blairite guff about “the knowledge economy” then the economic benefits of HE are indeed spread throughout society.”

A rising tide lifts all boats? This is why tax breaks on the richest is the most egalitarian measure you can make, right?

I think I missed the meeting when we decided that.

Yeah, me too. Nevertheless, education policy suddenly makes a lot more sense if you take this as read.

24

Colin Reid 12.07.10 at 4:51 pm

If this goes through, here’s my advice to any English kids reading this, whose parents are neither poor nor rich:

1. Study another major European language at school, and take it seriously. (French and German are good choices for instance.)

2. Go somewhere else in the EU for your first degree. (You may well be able to study in English, but knowing the local language greatly increases your options and is better for your social life.)

Seriously, there are large parts of Europe that charge only token fees to undergrads, even foreign undergrads (and as an EU citizen you’re only half-foreign anyway, officially at least). You won’t get the same maintenance loan package and you’ll have to pay for accommodation there, but it’ll still work out cheaper than the mountain of debt that will be piled on in England (especially if you were already planning on moving away from the parental home, seeing as accommodation is also more expensive in England than most European countries). You could try going elsewhere but the savings are likely to be less (eg the US is also quite expensive).

25

Brussel Sprout 12.07.10 at 4:52 pm

This and Gove’s proposals for schools require consistent and coherent campaigns of opposition because they are destructive, unfair and corrosive pieces of legislation. We are actually in a worse position than we were in the Thatcherite heyday because politics moved more slowly. Gove has already been forced into partial U-turns on school building programmes and sports for schools, but the fundamental problem is that this government is all too conscious that the clock is ticking and they are hurtling into formulating legislation based on rushed reviews that pander to prevailing fashions for cuts and false perceptions of the economic underpinnings of education.

I feel pessmistic because the Coalition government is making squeaky noises that suggest that there is some desire to pay lipservice to concepts of social justice and moral vision in both school and higher education, but there is nothing concrete in any of the reviews or white papers to indicate any coherent vision for education in Britain. The philistinism of refusing to fund subjects other than science, medicine and engineering is nausea-inducing.

26

dsquared 12.07.10 at 5:05 pm

Can someone enlighten this non-Brit as to how in the world the Lib Dem backbenchers can swallow being asked to vote for outright Thatcherism?

They’re bastards, Steve, they’re just bastards.

27

engels 12.07.10 at 5:14 pm

If you’re an egalitarian how come you’re an egalitarian academic political theorist?

This is probably the single question that I would most like to have asked the late G.A. Cohen, had I ever had the honour of speaking with him.

When I was recently at one of the free lectures which London’s great centres of education occasionally put on, Bread and Circus style, to amuse a few of the hoi polloi for an hour or so at lunchtime, I was struck by the extremely high level of security, up to and including corporate-HQ/train-station style automatic barriers. It made me wonder how it felt to be an East Berliner, or a Palestinian, looking up at a huge concrete wall.

28

Chris Bertram 12.07.10 at 5:25 pm

@engels I think in Jerry Cohen’s case there is no problem. He was supremely talented as a philosopher and a polemicist and, given his talents, I think he contributed as effectively as he possibly could have to the egalitarian cause through his influence on perhaps many thousands of people. When he had the opportunity to address a non-academic audience (e.g in his mid-1980 c4 programme on capitalism) he took the task enormously seriously. Since I fall way way short of Jerry’s talents and seriously influence tens of people only (at best) I find it harder to justify my own position (and the position of those relevantly like me such as Rob above), at least from an impersonal standpoint.

29

Anderson 12.07.10 at 5:33 pm

Can someone enlighten this non-Brit as to how in the world the Lib Dem backbenchers can swallow being asked to vote for outright Thatcherism?

“Bastards” may be one of the Aristotelian causes for their behavior, but as another American spectator, I too am puzzled. What, other than the saccharine glory of coalition membership, is LibDem getting out of ANY of its collaboration with the Tories? Is proportional voting to be introduced? Has the government proposed to do anything it wouldn’t be doing anyway if it were all Conservative?

And what is Labour doing in response to all this? Are they still licking their wounds, or is there any prospect of booting the coalition out early, if enough backbenchers become disaffected with where David “Maggie” Cameron is taking the country?

(Shorter Anderson: “kindly provide me, at no expense to myself, a suitable update on the political state of your Island whose affairs I cannot be troubled to monitor.” Please, no one take Shorter Anderson seriously.)

30

Tim Worstall 12.07.10 at 5:36 pm

“The proposals are being sold to the public on two grounds: 1. that they are part of a cuts package that is needed to reduce the UK’s deficit,”

That claim doesn’t even stand on its own merits, whatever one thinks of the Krugman/Stiglitz argument.

Imaginie, just for a moment, that HE was paid for out of current taxation in full. We then move to a system whereby the government lends to students who repay over 30 years (and again assume that all repay all). This is an expansion of the deficit, not a contraction of it. Certainly it expands it for the next 30 years, until those first full repayments have been completed.

Unless, that is, the loans themselves are made out of current taxation: which of course they’re not being. They are being made out of an expansion of government borrowing.

So this specific change in the financing, from smaller to larger studernt loans, is not either deficit or fiscally contractionary: quite the opposite, it’s both fiscally expansionary (we’re borrowing for current expenditure) and also deficit expanding.

31

Mark Field 12.07.10 at 5:40 pm

a comments threat at Leiter

Freudian slip or confirmation of what we all know?

32

Stuart 12.07.10 at 5:47 pm

I wonder if this particular policy is partly aimed at destroying the Lib Dem party – according to most polls they have lost well over half their voters since the election (starting to drop into single digits more recently), while the Conservatives have stayed steady. Of course if they did finally make a stand on an issue like this, and it causing another election, then they might back some of that ground for finally standing up for some of their principles, but otherwise Labour would be favourite to get back in power (given that the are currently in a dead heat with the Conservatives, which normally gives them about 30-40 more seats due to the smaller population inner city constituencies they tend to win more of).

33

Marc Mulholland 12.07.10 at 6:13 pm

Thanks for the considered reply up at 9, Chris!

34

Sam C 12.07.10 at 6:13 pm

Following up on Colin Reid at 24: I was talking last night to a visiting academic from Switzerland who asked, genuinely puzzled, whether the coalition government realised that European universities were rubbing their hands, giggling, and whispering ‘we’re going to get all the best students… we’re going to get all the best students…’.

35

Rob 12.07.10 at 6:22 pm

Engels,

I’m less egalitarian than Chris is or Jerry was, and also have differently structured views about the importance of equality, certainly than Jerry, so the question bites less with me. But roughly, prerogatives. More, depending on your views about the scope of equality, at the moment it’s possible that I’d be a beneficiary from a more equal distribution – at least of income. On this kind of issue, and at the risk of provoking what I suspect could be rather interminable debate, what would it take for philosophical egalitarians not to have corpses in their mouths? What set of political projects should they support, and how much support, either in word or deed, should they give?

36

dsquared 12.07.10 at 6:32 pm

What, other than the saccharine glory of coalition membership, is LibDem getting out of ANY of its collaboration with the Tories?

Nope, that’s it. LibDem MPs consist of the pre-1997 gang (basically representing constituencies in the West which haven’t yet got the message about Home Rule and the Corn Laws), and the post-1997 gang, who joined the party on the basis that it gave them the best fish/pond ratio, and who are now completely out of their depth[1], and only gradually realising that the reservoir of public support is gradually running dry[2].

[1] my god, this man’s command of an extended metaphor is amazing!
[2] ***, as Stella Gibbons might have it.

37

soru 12.07.10 at 6:33 pm

a scheme that loads the costs onto the direct beneficiaries can start to look plausible

Increasing the number of things available for purchase always takes money from the rich, in one analysis. Introduce private schools to some country (e.g. Finland) without them and, by some way of measuring things, the poor get better off and the rich get soaked.

That suggests there is something wrong with that way of measuring things.

To take the reductio ad absurdum, have the government sell on the open market certificates of immunity from prosecution. It should be easy to raise enough money to defer the costs of running trials and jails…

38

Anderson 12.07.10 at 7:54 pm

asked, genuinely puzzled, whether the coalition government realised that European universities were rubbing their hands, giggling, and whispering ‘we’re going to get all the best students… we’re going to get all the best students…’

Joke’s on them, says Cameron. They get the best students in FAKE subjects, like literature and philosophy and basket weaving, whilst the UK, with its sci/med/engineering concentration, will raise up a race of Clone Warriors who will bring Order to the Galaxy.

39

Phil Ruse 12.07.10 at 11:39 pm

“the assumption that is is progressive depends on assumptions about future government behaviour” – which of course can be said about the graduate tax. I assume you want some level of repayment but a ‘reasonable’ percentage paid for by the students themselves, which inevitably leaves you at the “someone working in McDonalds paying for a future banker’s education” argument that I have some trouble dismissing.

40

jon livesey 12.07.10 at 11:41 pm

I’m having just a little trouble squaring the word “egalitarian” with enthusiasm for making low wage earning taxpayers help to pay to put the children of the Middle Class through Liberal Arts programs.

41

jim 12.08.10 at 1:12 am

Clegg is gambling. I looked at Electoral Calculus a bit ago (the numbers may have changed now). Today the LDs have 57 MPs. With their reduced support, if an election were held today under First Past the Post rules, they’d end up with 17 MPs. But, if the election were held under AV rules, even with their massively reduced support, they’d end up with 64 MPs. The only hope of getting to AV is to be part of this coalition. If they lose the referendum, the LDs become irrelevant (again!). If they win, they insert themselves into all future political calculations.

So, from Clegg’s point of view, it’s worth eating some toad. Not that student fees are, to Clegg, toad. They’re perfectly consonant with Orange Book Liberalism.

42

Chris Bertram 12.08.10 at 6:14 am

@39 @40 I don’t see why, since egalitarians can (a) be pluralists (b) don’t have to think that _every_ individual expenditure programme has egalitarian effects and (c) can also favour raising tax thresholds on low income earners and raising tax rates on (and collection from) the wealthy.

43

dsquared 12.08.10 at 7:52 am

You’d think that nobody except the low-waged paid taxes in this country the way some people go on about university funding (or that the revenue raised from the lower earners was paid into a special hypothecated fund which could only be spent on students and the National Opera). In fact, the great majority of tax revenues come from the middle class and it is pretty hard to think of a fiscal system in which this wouldn’t be the case. Progressivity and regressivity has to be measured at the level of the tax & benefit system as a whole, and looking at individual aspects of the budget like university funding is almost certain to give you a misleading picture.

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armando 12.08.10 at 9:04 am

@42, 43. I think thats fair enough, but it does rather undercut the claim that there is an issue of social justice at stake. If, currently, education is largely paid for by general taxation whose burden is largely borne by the middle classes and the proposal moves that directly to students, who are largely middle class, then not much has changed.

Having said that, I think that Chris’ objection to the idea that we view everything in terms of economic benefit is pretty convincing. I hear so few academics argue that education is worthwhile in and of itself, which is a pretty depressing state of affairs.

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Alex 12.08.10 at 10:10 am

They get the best students in FAKE subjects, like literature and philosophy and basket weaving, whilst the UK, with its sci/med/engineering concentration

Well, it’s a concentration in the sense of “we concentrated the cuts somewhere else”, not in the sense of “we concentrated our resources on the natural sciences in order that they got more”.

David Willetts is now arguing that if you became a teacher, say, on a starting salary of £21,500, you’d be paying something like £4 a week in repayments. He didn’t say how long he expects it to take to pay it off, nor how much additional interest you’d be paying as a result. He also didn’t make the obvious point that the teacher in question wouldn’t be paying very much a week if repayment was simply through income tax.

It is, after all, silly to argue that there is a significant graduate premium and that paying for higher education through general taxation is unaffordable, especially as student loan repayments are taken at source through PAYE. It’s like that scene in Red Dwarf where Rimmer declares a Red Alert. Kryten the robot asks him: “Are you sure? It does mean changing the bulb“. Are you sure? It does mean printing it on a different line item on your payslip, and getting rid of the whole clanking, cash-leaking semiprivatised machinery of assessment and forms and student loans and repayments.

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Pete 12.08.10 at 11:50 am

The only hope of getting to AV is to be part of this coalition. If they lose the referendum, the LDs become irrelevant (again!)

And the best way to win a referendum is to ensure a large angry student campaign against it .. no, wait.

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Pete 12.08.10 at 11:59 am

“someone working in McDonalds paying for a future banker’s education” argument that I have trouble dismissing

The best reason to dismiss this argument is to note that it can and will be used in the other direction, to argue that there’s no reason for the banker to pay e.g. housing benefit to the McDonalds worker. Or for his healthcare.

Payments into the treasury must not be considered anything other than “blind”. Government is not consumerism. We’re not buying policy outcomes with our taxes.

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Steve LaBonne 12.08.10 at 1:19 pm

You’d think that nobody except the low-waged paid taxes in this country the way some people go on about university funding (or that the revenue raised from the lower earners was paid into a special hypothecated fund which could only be spent on students and the National Opera).

Eh, we get plenty of that BS from conservatives in the US, as well. Pretend concern for the lower orders is one of the most hackneyed right-wing tropes. In the US it’s a staple of school “reform” as well as budget-cutting.

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Pauline Fairclough 12.08.10 at 2:03 pm

Thanks, Chris for saying all this so clearly and honestly. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. It is just terribly, terribly sad for our children and many of us feel compromised by our passive role in it. The government have played their hand rather cleverl, with the result that all the arguments have been directed at not quite the right target and the white paper lags way behind tomorrow’s vote, by which time the die is cast (as they well know). The issue isn’t fees per se; it is the deeper belief that society as a whole does not benefit from educating its citizens up to age 21, whatever they study. Cue lots of spiteful comments about the ‘middle classes’ having to pay for their own privileges; as you say, if we applied this logically to everything the state would provide nothing at all.

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Barry 12.08.10 at 3:11 pm

armando :
“@42, 43. I think thats fair enough, but it does rather undercut the claim that there is an issue of social justice at stake. If, currently, education is largely paid for by general taxation whose burden is largely borne by the middle classes and the proposal moves that directly to students, who are largely middle class, then not much has changed.”

The intergenerational aspects have been pointed out.

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Chris Bertram 12.08.10 at 4:25 pm

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Norwegian Guy 12.08.10 at 4:40 pm

I would be surprised if not most people that receive publicly funded higher education, pay back the cost of it (and more) with their tax payments during their years in the workforce (*). And those who don’t – well, that’s because they got low incomes. But progressives don’t have a problem with policies that benefit low-income people. What difference does it make if these poor people are university graduates or high school dropouts?

(*) Not that this really matters. As others have pointed out, an important point with free education is taking a public good out of the marketplace. It’s actually a bit of socialism in a capitalist society.

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piglet 12.08.10 at 8:15 pm

Whether the changes are distributively regressive or progressive (compared to the status quo) is a matter of some controversy

You must be joking right?

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Milli Schmidt 12.09.10 at 3:46 pm

Excellent post and analysis – got SOAS go!
http://soasoccupation2010.wordpress.com/

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JSM 12.09.10 at 5:36 pm

53

As the still-more-or-less-admired IFS put it:

“By decile of graduate lifetime earnings, the government’s proposals are more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne. The highest earning graduates would pay more on average than both the current system and that proposed by Lord Browne, while lower earning graduates would pay back less. By decile of parental income, graduates from the poorest 30% of households would pay back less than under Lord Browne’s proposed system, but more than under the current system. While all graduates from families with incomes above this would pay more, graduates from the 6th and richest (10th) deciles of parental income would pay back the most under the proposed system.”

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James Conran 12.09.10 at 7:20 pm

Nicholas Barr had an interesting post on a HEFCE report on the impact of top-up fees on access: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/?p=698

He quotes the report:

‘Substantial, sustained and materially significant participation increases for the most disadvantaged areas across the 04:05 to 09:10 cohorts are found regardless of whether educational, occupational or income disadvantage is considered. Typically, young people from the 09:10 cohort living in the most disadvantaged areas are around +30 per cent more likely to enter higher education than they were five years previously (04:05 cohort), and around +50 per cent more likely to enter higher education than 15 years previously (94:95 cohort)’ (para. 28).

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noel douglas 12.11.10 at 7:51 am

You defeat the ‘why should a McDonald’s worker pay for the son of the rich’ argument by saying, if we had a progressive income tax that actually taxed rich people much more (remember it was 60% high rate tax for most of Thatcherism, and collected the evaded and avoided tax), then it wouldn’t matter, the rich would pay more, and because they pay more the son or daughter of the the McDonalds worker, or the McDonald’s worker herself can go for free, because you could afford a free education system from cradle to grave.

Let’s stop mucking about, we’re being sold a dodgy motor by a bunch of spivs, problem is it runs the risk of wrecking our culture and bringing us closer to Fascism (you think I’m over the top? Check the police reaction to the protests), we live in one of the richest countries in the world, last year, in the greatest recesssion since the war, the 1000 richest people in the UK, who have a combined wealth of £230 billion pounds, got £77 Billion pounds richer! We spend less than 1.5% of GDP on Education, yet education (of all kinds) is the most important aspect of Society for our continued development and future on this planet. We spend more on War and Arms, it is a mad world.

This has to change.

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