Taking taxpayers for a ride [to a prosperous future]

Another day, another columnist in a national newspaper putting forward the More Means Worse argument.

This time, it’s the natural home of this argument – the Telegraph.  Jeremy Warner uses the publication of Alison Wolf’s report Heading for the Precipice  as his reason for his more expansive piece Booming universities take taxpayers for a ride.  Time doesn’t allow for a line by line rebuttal, but it is worth looking at some of his straw men in turn.

The far bigger winner is in fact higher education, or more particularly, university education. This might seem a better use of scarce taxpayer resource than many of the alternatives, but here’s the politically inconvenient truth. For a growing number of British students, for the taxpayer and for the economy as a whole, it is obvious that these expenditures are largely a waste of money.

Here is the central premise: for a ‘growing number’ expending money for them to get a degree is a ‘waste of money’.  The money in question is, of course, a mix of government subsidised loans and other funds (it is a vanishingly small number of students who could maintain themselves from their loans and any bursaries they got).  Why is it a waste of money though?

Warner relies on this from Wolf’s conclusion:

“In post-19 education, we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher-technician level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelors degrees and low-level vocational qualifications.”

This was picked up in the media, but Warner (who surely must have read the rest of the report), would know that Wolf’s argument is not that higher education is a waste of money but that we are not funding ‘higher-technician’ qualifications properly – the type that sit between much on-the-job training and higher education.

Warner then creates a simple straw man argument: “Say all school-leavers went to university”.  Well, he argues, if that happened then people who weren’t able to benefit from a higher education would be admitted, and, guess what, they might not benefit from a higher education.  Naturally, this argument can be extended: If unfit people like me competed in the Olympics, they’d do badly, if people (like me) who can’t drive started driving cars, there would be more accidents.

From here, it is an easy step to our favourite argument:

Courses in “media studies” may be an extreme example of the essentially useless nature of much university education, but the same holds true even of some more obviously vocational courses. You might think a legal degree would automatically qualify you for a job in the law; from many of the poorer universities, it does not. Students are being sold not just a false prospectus, but false hope.

Now, who decided where media studies and law sit in a supposed continuum of vocational to academic subjects?  Is media ‘useless’ because it’s extremely vocational or extremely academic?  We used to enjoy the piece of data that showed that a higher proportion of people with media degrees worked in the media than people with law degrees worked in law.  It’s not just ‘poorer universities’ law degrees that don’t automatically qualify you for a job in law, both solicitors and barristers require further professional training.  But law is different to other degrees that lead to careers: an initial teacher education degree will equip you to be a teacher, a nursing degree to be a nurse.  But a degree should be more than that – it should by its very nature open a student to all sorts of possibilities – those holding a degree in law or nursing or media or classics have far more options because of that degree.

And a solution?

… an obvious starting point is to force universities to be much more transparent about entry qualifications, numbers achieving top-level degrees, and the employment prospects these degrees are capable of buying.

Well, all those data are available, and are very regularly made available to students.  After all, if you include the NSS results these are the main drivers for the parts of university league tables that say they measure teaching.   Increasingly we need to worry about our understanding of causation here.  We had the DLHE data yesterday and, for example, it is clear that women still have lower starting salaries.  Is that because universities teach female students less well?  No, I don’t think so.

But how can Warner top all this for an ending?

A more extreme approach would be to make loans dependent on achieving decent entry qualifications, but that might be going too far; we don’t want to upset our social mobility goals, do we.

Firstly, we have had systems in the past that have limited state support to a threshold qualification – the old 2 ‘A’ level rule for grants.  The Browne Review suggested that places (and therefore funds) would be rationed on the basis of a UCAS tariff threshold.  If government wanted to limit numbers (it doesn’t) then this could be done.  But look at the nasty second clause. Warner has assumed that the subjects of social mobility goals won’t have ‘decent entry qualifications’? Where did that come from? Has he assumed that people in the top socio-economic groups just come better qualified or that they get better preparation for taking qualifications?

Why should people go to university?  There are lots of reasons, some of which will be to do with the skills they develop which might be useful in future careers.  The Robbins Report put alongside the acquisition of skills, teaching to promote the general powers of the mind, leading to the production of “not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women” and he called for the “transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.  We must continue to argue for the wider personal and social benefits of a higher education


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