“How do you think higher education should be funded?”

I am currently considering this question as the Peterhouse JCR is in the process of running a referendum and this is the first and most important question on that referendum the purpose of which is to determine how Peterhouse should vote at the next CUSU Council meeting.
The possible options are:

  1. Raised tuition fees
  2. A graduate tax
  3. Offer fewer university places / close down less well performing Universities
  4. Higher universal taxation
  5. Cuts to other public services instead
  6. Other / Abstain

However there are more fundamental underlying questions which need to be considered:
What are the purposes of University?
Why are those good purposes?
How well does University achieve those purposes?
What value to we place on outcomes beyond the simple increase in potential earnings such as on producing better adjusted individuals with improved support networks who are better able to play their part in society?
Should ‘Universities’ which are ‘rubbish’ and don’t actually provide ‘proper’ degrees be called Universities? (No clearly not: they should be called polytechnics or similar and not offer degrees but rather more flexible qualifications which actually fit the useful things they are there to teach)
Should these polytechnics exist? Should they receive government funding in the way that Universities do?
Is University the best way of teaching people the skills they need for work in areas such as Engineering and Computer Science? Does that matter?

Clearly a graduate tax is a stupid idea because it would mean that anyone we educated and who then left the country to work abroad would not pay for the cost of their education – and that many people would do this, particularly among the highest earners. It also does not provide the money directly to the universities which educated them and would instead go to some general pot and so not reward universities for how good they were at educating their students (from the point of view of earning potential).

Offering fewer university places / close down less well performing Universities… well to Cambridge students that seems like a rather appealing option (and it is the favourite to win the JCR vote). However it is important to ensure that we are not thinking that this is a good plan simply because it means that University funding becomes an issue affecting other people at other Universities rather than us which is easy to do on a subconscious level and to then justify on a concious one. One justification is that we know that our friends and fellow pupils at school did not always work as hard as we did in order to get where we have got and so why should they be supported at our expense? Clearly we put more work in than they did. However the question of what the value of University is to both society and individuals even if the University doesn’t manage to teach the individual anything is one for which I don’t have an answer. Putting concrete values on externalities is not something which we are particularly good at as a society. I should probably study some more economics in order to get better at doing so.
The problem with this point then is that while it seems appealing on a superficial level I worry that in the grander scheme of things it might not be such a good idea. For example how would reducing the number of university places be managed? Remove the same proportion from all universities? Clearly that would be a stupid idea as it places no value on the relative quality of teaching at different universities. We don’t want those who should go to University missing out due to lack of places in good universities while those who probably shouldn’t get in to the lower quality ones. How about making the number of places available on a course be dependent on how many people applied for it? So that for example if 200 people apply then a maximum of 100 places can be funded. However there might be problems with that if there are good courses which only appeal/accept candidates from a small pool of potential applicants and so most of those who apply should get a place as they are sufficiently brilliant.

Higher universal taxation? Well here we have to consider whether the benefit of university is for society as a whole than to the individuals directly as otherwise it is perhaps not fair to make everyone pay more. Here again I think we struggle to be able to make good decisions on what proportion of university funding for teaching should come from the students and what proportion from general taxation due to the lack of a function for determining the value of university and apportioning that to individuals and society as a whole.

Raised tuition fees? Clearly this is controversial for students as it affects us most directly and does cause real problems for students. It is thus perfectly understandable that many students and their representatives vehemently oppose tuition fees in general and their increase in particular. As per one of the CUSU motions “Education is a public good” which is true but to be able to weigh its value against that of other government expenditure we need some way of measuring relative worth of different public goods which I don’t think we have. At least not in a clear manner which allows decisions to be reached which don’t appear to be simply arbitrary. Instead long discussions are had and long articles written which skirt around the edges of issues and are dissatisfying in not being able to deal with these issues directly.[0]
However here it is perhaps useful to consider that compared with private secondary education University is still cheap even with increased tuition fees to £7,000. A private day secondary school could easily be charging in excess of £9,000 a year and at least in comparison to Cambridge not be providing nearly as high a quality of education. A private boarding school could easily be charging £26,000 a year per student. The cost my going to University per year is ~£10,000 including tuition fees, rent etc. this is significantly less than what my parents were paying for my sixth form education even with the 20% scholarship. My parents could still pay for the full costs of my university education if it was ~£14,000 instead and then I walk out with a degree and no debt… This only applies to a small minority of students though and somewhere around University children need to become adults and stop relying on parents for all supplies of funding. I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that there are students who have parents who could easily pay the higher fees (or even higher still fees) and not really be affected by doing so, however it is unfortunately probably not feasible to identify who these students are. Higher levels of debt are likely to put off students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying which is a serious concern as it is very important to find those people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the ability to perform and give them a helping hand to make sure that they can perform to the best of that ability.

Of the CUSU motions a and c seem reasonable, b is poorly worded and says things which are blatantly wrong and d makes some good points but also some silly ones and some of its action points seem unrelated to solving the issues identified. E which the JCR as a whole is not voting on also appears to be reasonable.

Peterhouse JCR people: Vote. Everyone else: vote early, vote often.

Apologies for the unsystematic and poorly written brain dump, really I should go back through this and rewrite it…

[0]: Here I am thinking back to discussions I had last night relating to the difficulty of expressing and discussing truly important things compared to the ease and simplicity of discussing trivialities.

Tags: , , , , , ,

4 Responses to ““How do you think higher education should be funded?””

  1. Nicholas Says:

    I am not convinced economics would really help with putting concrete values on externalities! The field is pretty sparse in really good, concrete, quantitative results, as far as I gather. Things which are intrinsically measurable (stock prices) can be fit well enough to high order linear models, but the really tough problems are still essentially only vaguely analysable. As with all things that matter, a large dose of opinion and feeling has to come it here. So, I am not entirely worried that our “Last chance to save higher education as we know it” (CUSU!) is attracting feeling rather than analysis.

    11.a) has some good points, but heavy-handed; b) seems fairly unsound in its total disregard for labour mobility; c) sounds isolationist (I really dislike the idea of democracy being purely about people standing up for themselves, and the biggest group wins: if enough students campaign for their interests, society kow-tows.) d) upsets me with a hefty load of junk insinuations.

    e) seems to me to have the worst wording of all. My reflections on fascism are that it really needs to be dealt with compassionately, not with like. There are real people in Britain struggling and getting fed wrong teaching and suffering from it, and working out how to address that social problem I think needs to start with a kinder approach. What would the church do? Send mature families into tough areas (eg last year a call at NWA) to model and spread a different way of thinking. The government can’t send missionaries, but could for example try and find some staff with skills in waffle-free negotiation to work as council staff or social workers. Does a demonstration really touch people’s affections?

    At the end, the final problem is as with all votes: we need a mix! Some reduction in places will have to happen, as I suspect Britain on average does spend a little more time in full-time education than is quite needed; tuition fees could reasonably be higher; and repayments based on subsequent earnings, if not too strongly, would make a certain sense (a weak form of ‘graduate tax’).

  2. Nicholas Says:

    PS. Your blog does not respect browser font-size settings and is painfully small on my screen; would you mind removing font-size:12px from style.css ~line 1222 and setting font-size to something more reasonable, 90% say, in line 15?

  3. drt24 Says:

    With regard to font size: how about now?

    With regard to learning economics I think in general economics fails utterly at putting values on externalities but I thought perhaps that by looking to see how they fail to do it I might get a better idea of how to do it.

    As always your analysis is far better thought out than mine :-)

  4. Nicholas Says:

    Font fine; thanks. WP was similarly naughty until recently, leading to an annoying instance of ‘grade inflation’: users would set their browser font size bigger than they actually wanted to compensate for popular sites setting body text at 80%; popular sites then reduced font size to fit more on, and users pumped up their font sizes, and so on. I am pretty strict and always use 100% of the user’s specified preference (not that I can exactly break the cycle).

    Coming back to the BNP question again, I guess this is nearer the root of my unease about campaigning: it distances us from them in a way that prevents identifying with them. The heart of the problem is sin, which once chained us too and which we still endure for a time, but I suspect most CUSU folks are approaching the matter from a point of view that says “we are multi-racial, kind and accepting of all; this is their problem that they have to fix”, rather than being able to identify with the people who are locked up in their attitudes. Just like conversion, debating with the BNP will not necessarily make them see a different affection. From the point of view of ‘the government’ (does it exist as a thing?—more thought needed), the gospel is not going to get applied, but I am just exploring the idea here of whether there are ways we approach these people starting by identifying with them rather than seeing it as a demographic problem soluble by debate, campaign, or the education dream. In the end, I don’t really have an answer, but I am trying to work out what it is about so much of the secularist campaign for tolerance that makes me uneasy.

Leave a Reply