My previous post on the options society should offer 20-year olds got a big and useful response. But unsurprisingly, given the CT roster and readership, it was very university-centric, and, within that, focused on issues around elite institutions. A sentence and footnote about Oxford and Cambridge got as much attention as the rest of the post put together. And the same is true, more subtly, of other points that were raised in repsonse. So, I want to point to some neglected aspects of the post, and ask commenters to focus primarily on the issues as they affect the majority young people who will not go to top-ranked universities, even in a system with greatly expanded access.
First up, I’d like to repeat a couple of paras from the previous post, to which the only responses I saw were reactions to the fact that some of the arguments I made were politically sensitive in the context of the current UK debate about university tuition fees. I wasn’t talking about that, but about a future situation of greatly expanded, but not universal, access. I don’t want to revisit the debates from last time (happy to continue in that thread if people want), but to ask readers and commenters to focus on the proposal itself, in terms of practicality, equity, long-term political appeal, fit with a broader social democratic program and so on. Restating:
If we have a universal or near-universal system, it’s natural to start on the basis of funding through the tax system. Things aren’t quite so easy in the more realistic case where a majority get post-school education, but a minority do not. Here, there are various options for avoiding the inequitable outcome where the minority (probably poorer on average) pay for benefits they don’t receive. One is the set of ideas that have been canvassed in the current debate, including graduate taxes, income-contingent loans and so on.
The alternative is some version of the proposal put forward by Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman in the US a while back of making a universal grant, available to everyone at age 20. I’m inclined to a somewhat more paternalistic view than their suggestion of a no-strings grant (partly from considerations of political realism, to which utopians should pay attention, I think). I’d prefer to limit the use of the grant to a range of purposes that are likely to yield life benefits (education, buying a house, starting a small business) and, until it was used, invest it and give the beneficiaries the proceeds every year.
The other point I want to respond to is the suggestion, made by quite a few commenters that “the real problem is at high school or earlier”. My immediate response was to agree in large part, but on rethinking I want to push back a bit.
The big problem with this response is that, while it’s possible to point to various inequities that might be fixed in various countries, there aren’t many obvious general options to achieve better, and less unequal, outcomes from high school, or for that matter from the school system as a whole. As regards improving outcomes, the last two decades have seen the implementation of a market-liberal reform program adopted in the US (and to some extent elsewhere) and based on such proposals as charter schools, for-profit schools, sharp incentives based on text-score, breaking the power of teacher unions and so on. That’s been a near-total failure, but there hasn’t been much put forward in the way of a left/social democratic alternative as far as I can see (I’d be very glad to be corrected on this). And if improving outcomes is hard, doing so in a way that yields more equal outcomes is even harder.
The more fundamental problem is that, compared to both higher education and the socio-economic structure as a whole, the school education system is already highly egalitarian in principle. Within any given system, it is pretty generally accepted that access should be universal and free and that the only legitimate basis for differential provision is based on need. This contrasts dramatically with the principles that apply to post-school education. Even (particularly?) where post-school education is free of charge, it is typically rationed in ways that are totally at variance with egalitarian principles.
While egalitarian principles don’t always translate perfectly into reality (particularly where funding is locally based as in the US, or where there is substantial public aid to private schools as in Australia), unequal outcomes from schooling are not, in the main, due to unequal funding. Rather, they reflect the advantages or disadvantages students bring from home as a result of the inequalities in society as a whole. These in turn are due, at least in part, to the way in which stratification and unequal funding of post-school education reinforce existing inequalities in opportunity and (by stratifying the future workforce) promote greater inequality in outcomes.
So, to my mind, it doesn’t really make sense to say we should leave post-school, education alone until we’ve resolved the problems at the high school level and below. Post-school education is part of the problem. Again, I’ll request commenters to focus on the issues as they affect the majority of the population, rather than the minority who attend the kind of university where CTers mostly work.