Tuition Fees (Part 2): Public/Private and Market Failures

Jul 25, 2011

Tutition Fees Protest - London 9.12.10As the last fees post explored, my reading of the Browne report is that they found it's the responsibility of the state to ensure a decent level of funding for education but also that the government decision making process can't be trusted to carry this out - requiring a system in which money is compelled out of the government coffers as loans, with prices set elsewhere. The Browne report redefines the role of the state so that there is no splitting of the burden between public and private sources, but the state simply provides  the capital upfront to allow your future private self to fund your education. In this way it changes government's role from being the representation of the public interest to one where it plays banker and is no longer required to make funding decisions.

There are exceptions to this in a few courses that are deemed to require continued public funding. While the courses listed are discussed only in terms of economic worth, keeping any idea of a cultural benefit firmly out of range, what the report’s actually getting at here isn’t just which courses are and aren’t economically required but mostly that these are courses that are more expensive to run, and so require subsidies to hide the true cost from students who might be put off. This amounts to an acknowledgement of the fairly obvious reality that students will be put off from one course as opposed to another on the basis of price (even when the cost isn't paid upfront) and concludes that the intimidation of higher fees for economically vital professions is considered serious enough that intervention is required. But to play the free-market position for a moment (and indeed use the language used elsewhere in the report), surely if these professions are truly vital, their future employers will pay higher wages that justify the investment they make in an education? If student choice has failed us here, are there other instances we should correct for the market?

Interestingly this means the Browne report does have a notion of the public good, but only in so far as we have enough engineers - there is no such argument made, for instance, that there is a good in having our elite institutions truly open to all. [1. I agree with Paul Sager that if we’re looking at elite institutions as a way for the poor to leapfrog into the higher echelons of society this isn’t the best conception of the overall problem, but that said a system in which the existing elite completely dominate the institutions that perpetuate it is even more undesirable than one in which that’s only partly true.]  Browne at the same time as basing its system around the idea of student (consumer) choice, keeps pulling back from the idea that students are actually capable of making the correct decisions – and to be honest they’re probably right to - it’s not at all clear that even given ridiculous amounts of metrics prospective students will be in any position to make educated choices, as laid out in Stefan Collini’s excellent critique of Browne:

Browne appears to believe that the only relevant measure of teaching quality is ‘student satisfaction’. That is how the system will work: if they are satisfied, they’ll pay, and if not, not; and the pressure they exert thereby will ‘drive up quality’. But this, other problems aside, comes perilously close to reducing important human experiences to a set of ‘preferences’ as reported on a tick-box questionnaire. I would hope the students I teach come away with certain kinds of dissatisfaction (including with themselves: a ‘satisfied’ student is nigh-on ineducable), and it matters more that they carry on wondering about the source of that dissatisfaction than whether they ‘liked’ the course or not. This is another respect in which the ‘consumer’ model is simply misleading, an error encouraged by the prevalence in current edspeak of the category of ‘the student experience’ (many universities now have a senior figure entitled Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Student Experience). It may be that the most appropriate way to decide whether the atmosphere in the student bar is right is by what students say when asked in a questionnaire whether they ‘like’ it or not. But this is obviously not the best way to decide whether a philosophy degree should have a compulsory course on Kant. The philosophy department might hope that, some time after graduation, most of its former students would come to see the wisdom of this requirement, but ‘student satisfaction’ is not what is at issue here. That this recognition is retrospective tells us something important about education: individuals often need to be told by someone who knows that a particular line of study is worth pursuing whether at the time they want to or not.

While the report writers attempted to solve the perceived inability of politicians to make the right call on education by turning that decision over to a market, it’s not at all clear that the mechanism they picked is appropriate to the task and the report itself doesn’t have a great deal of trust in prospective students to make the right decisions when it’s really important. The vaguely tragic thing about the Browne report is that the version that arrived in the final coalition plan doesn’t even seem to achieve its own ends. Its goal of separating education funding from government oversight has failed as the caps mean that many universities will raise their fees to the cap just to replace cuts and so future governments will be required to either raise the cap or increase public investment in order to inject more money into the system. I don’t think it’s a universally terrible plan, the repayment plan is genuinely more progressive but it’s not at all convincing that the fees based market approach gives enough benefits to justify the discouraging effects that putting the price upfront  produces.

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