Sunday, November 30, 2003

top ups and double payments
My stepson should be off to university next year, which means he’ll graduate in 2006, just in time to avoid top up fees the government announced last week. So when he graduates, he’ll only have to worry about debts of around £10,000, for which I suppose we must be thankful.

The new fees have been justified on pseudo-egalitarian grounds, in typical New Labour style:

Funding universities entirely from general taxation is enormously regressive. Lower-paid workers subsidise the children of the middle and upper classes but, because access is restricted, their children will not benefit. Limiting access will be more expensive, and more destructive to our economic and social aspirations, than opening education to everyone with the desire and ability.

By the same logic, why should poorer people subsidise better off people’s medical treatments? This is nonsense. I went to University in 1982. All my fees were paid, and I received a full maintenance grant. Higher education was a public good available to all who were capable or motivated to get it, whatever their backgrounds. And if most of the places went to “middle class” children, which seems to mean in this context anyone who doesn’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck, then why not? They paid for the bulk of the taxes which funded it. Taking the long view, this shows why the welfare state was a success and needs to be preserved, rather than reformed. The reasons why poorer children don’t go to college are many and varied, often with their roots in the family environment and the kind of primary and secondary education available, and these reasons don’t change with the funding system for higher education.

There are certainly more people in higher education, but this has more to do with expanded supply. And the rush to provide courses – any courses, provided a degree is the end result - which introduces certain quality control issues.

Media studies courses metastasize and proliferate. Perfectly decent and useful skills which could be assimilated in a year or six months are bloated out to three years with a mortar board stuck on top. And elite universities naturally seek to distance themselves, with one means of doing so being to charge higher fees. Apart from anything else, this is a signal to the rich that their kids won’t be mixing with the vast herd of communication studies students. This is hardly a progressive outcome. Meanwhile, parents are being told to pay more for what is, overall, a worse product.

Funding higher education through private debt also raises another issue. It’s fairly easy to do in tranquil economic times, but when recession hits as it must do at sometime it’s unlikely that the banks will be willing to carry so many students through their studies, which will affect students from poorer backgrounds more. It’s your bank manager who will set the upper limit on your educational aspirations, not your “desire and ability.”

Overall, the education reforms are part of a wider process through which general provision of public goods is replaced by state charity for the poor, with people slightly higher up the income scale being forced to pay twice, through taxation and through user fees. If Labour rebels don’t derail this process then it’s up to the Tories - a nice irony, assuming their opposition to top up fees is actually sincere. It certainly gives the Howardistas a chance to make ground.