Universities should be free-to charge students what they like. Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, says Dearing is already out of date, the system must be deregulatedby Alan Ryan / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Labour education policy is a mess, but we should not mock. The last election was fought on two wonderfully self-destructive slogans. When the Tories said: “Labour has stolen our policies-and they will not work,” Labour replied: “Tory spending targets are absurd-and we will adhere to them.” Quite right. The policies won’t work; the targets were absurd; the government has stuck to them, and it will all end in tears. The search for improved standards in schools has encountered local government rate-capping, and come off the worse. The Kennedy report on further education has sunk without trace. And the Dearing report on higher education was hijacked by press release before the committee reported. In comradely spirit, I offer an outline-in about 1,700 words rather than the report’s 1,700 pages-of what Dearing should have said about higher education, and some predictions about what post-16 education will look like in ten years. Dearing’s report was not a guide to the next 20 years but a memento of the last 30. It should be buried quietly, but not in the way ministers have in mind.
First, the context. The higher education system has expanded enormously; 40 years ago, some 5 per cent of school leavers went to university, now 33 per cent do. In Scotland, it is 44 per cent. Higher education is very different from what it was; before, it was liberal education for upper- and middle-class boys, and a few of their sisters. Now, it is mostly pre-professional training: the provision of credentials for the higher reaches of vocational training and access to managerial positions. (Of course, liberal education is also vocational training. The “transferable skills” that employers want are better fostered by “liberal arts and sciences” than by any other undergraduate training, and the threat to the liberal arts posed by Dearing’s obsession with education for work should not be underestimated.) It has also become an education provided on the cheap-in real terms, at about half the price of 30 years ago-and much of it is unimpressive. Even the best British universities would not make the US top ten any longer; any young academic who could get a job at Stanford or Berkeley would be foolish not to take it.
Higher education has become mass education without much changing its class character; only 8 per cent of the bottom two income groups enter the tertiary sector, while 80 per cent of the top income group do so. Most obstacles in the way of bright children from hard-up backgrounds are in place before they are 11 years old, but a reforming government should still lean over backwards to smooth the path of those who have not been disqualified before they are 18. Whatever system of financing colleges and universities the government finally decides on must include generous scholarship aid to the worst off. Not only are their needs greater and their parents’ ability to help them less, but they are more likely to be deterred by the prospect of starting adult life substantially in debt. A Labour government that ignores this is not “New Labour” but Old Reaganite.
There is no consensus about the purpose of higher education. Nor should there be. One million students rightly want very different things from different institutions, and from studying different subjects. Indeed, another failure in the expansion of the past 20 years has been the boring uniformity of the enlarged system. The only institution in Britain that has ever held a candle to the best American liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore or Williams was the University of Keele. But its foundation year programme, dual honours degrees, and insistence that all students took courses in arts and sciences have always looked expensive, and have been steadily undermined. The new universities, the colleges and polytechnics entitled since 1992 to call themselves “universities” and “university colleges” have made a Faustian bargain. Instead of doing something different and doing it well, they find themselves doing what the other 101 institutions of higher education do, and with modest success. Some way of liberating them is urgently needed.
Among the benefits that individuals derive from attendance at a university or higher education college, the financial benefits are the most obvious. League tables of the starting salaries of their graduates suggest what most people would assume-that students benefit most from attending high status places such as Imperial College, London. But it may be that when half the age group goes to college, students at less well regarded places will never make up the lost earnings of their late teens and early 20s, and would be better off taking courses as needed throughout their working lives. That is an argument for differential pricing.
The public benefits of higher education are more contentious. No doubt a better educated workforce will be more productive; but whether university students most need assistance, and whether what they learn at university is what is required, is another question. British economic growth has, if anything, got feebler since the highest tax rates were cut and more of the population went on to higher education. Nobody supposes that raising taxes and closing universities would benefit growth, but it might be hard to show that sending more students to higher education-rather than, say, spending the money on primary education-is a good bargain for the economy.
The question that agitates governments is how higher education is to be paid for. The answer to that question is complicated by two things. The first is that New Labour got into office by promising the public that it could have more of everything-smaller school classes, shorter waiting lists in the NHS, more effective secondary education and better universities-without anyone having to pay for them. The second is that because it is a party stuffed with former lecturers, Labour believes that it knows how the education system works. The combination will produce a new version of one of Margaret Thatcher’s worst habits-shouting about markets and then engaging in furious micro-management.
There is only one solution, but it will require boldness, and will present the government and higher education institutions with a difficult few years. The higher education funding councils should be abolished; so should the Quality Assurance Agency, and on no account should government set up an institute to decide whether teachers in higher education know how to teach. (If students who are old enough to drink, drive, marry, and die for their country are not old enough to insist on being taught adequately, we may as well set the age of majority at 75.) The department for education and employment can manage the capital budgets of higher education institutions, on its own or with the co-operation of local government; the research councils along with everyone else can buy the research they want from the places best able to do it. The Research Assessment Exercise should be closed down, as another piece of intrusive micro-mana-gement; those who pay for the research can ask whatever questions they need about the quality of the work they will be getting. As to the cost of teaching, institutions should be allowed to charge whatever they like for the courses they offer; they will soon discover what their market niche is if they have one.
The money to pay for tuition should come from students and their parents, supplemented by competitive scholarships for the worse off, and the cost made less painful to everyone else by cheap loans. Talk about the sanctity of free higher education is self-deluding nonsense in a country that has decided-not irreversibly, but certainly for the foreseeable future-that low rates of personal taxation are even more sacrosanct. There is a notion abroad that parents will resist paying for their children to get an education. Parents would do well to reflect that their children en masse will be paying for their pensions in due course, and their own children in particular will be caring for them individu- ally. It is high time the public stopped believing that it can both have larger disposable incomes and enjoy the same benefits as European countries with much higher taxes. There are lots of ways of paying for higher education; but none of them can rely on manna from heaven.
It is a feature of highly developed societies that they prolong dependency and make ever larger investments in their young people. Middle-class American parents take it for granted that they may be looking at a bill of $50,000 to $100,000 for four years of college for their children. As a proportion of income, US colleges exact about twice what the British means-testing system does. The bill can be lowered if students live at home and attend the local state college or university-and it is clear that given the choice, many British families would decide that the vocational needs of their children could be met by their going to the college down the road and spending the extra money on a car, or saving it for the down payment on a house. One advantage of handing the bill to parents and students is that it resolves the perennial problem of the extra cost of the London colleges and Oxbridge. Like everyone else, they must see what the market will bear. Another is that it will encourage colleges and universities to raise scholarship money for themselves. Ivy League universities give back in scholarships 40 per cent of what they collect in tuition charges. No British university could do anything like it-and only a handful of Oxbridge colleges; but given time, and the obvious necessity, most British universities could get there. For 30 years, governments have micro-managed the higher education system into decline in everything but numbers; now it is time for a five-year transition to independence.