Is a university education really a public good? 

Following our inconclusive general election last month, the issue of higher education funding has again come to the fore. Both the main parties came in for criticism, with the Tory minister Jo Johnson defending the current tuition fees in the Guardian, and Labour’s shadow education minister Angela Rayner admitting that wiping out student debt, as trailed by her Party leader, might not be realistic. And along came Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, pointing out that vice chancellors had taken the £9,000 yearly tuition fee as a baseline rather than a cap, and had used the income not to create grants and bursaries for poorer students but to award themselves generous salary hikes (a view generally thought by vice chancellors to be massively unfair) and hire research “stars”.
My Twitter feed quickly filled up with people proclaiming that Johnson was wrong to depict higher education as purely a private investment. Rather, they suggested, it was a public good – a point usually illustrated by short lists of the nice people who graduate, such as doctors and teachers and . . . Well, that was usually it.

Doctors and teachers are of course Good Things (though some of them skip off, after their publicly funded training, to work for private hospitals and schools). But universities also educate accountants, estate agents, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, management consultants, and those people in university admin who draft regulations requiring external examiners to produce a passport. In short, we can draw up our own list of nice and less nice graduate professions to suit our beliefs. 

The case for higher education as a public good has to run a lot deeper, and it probably can’t easily be made on Twitter. It cannot be selective but has to cover the entire teaching function. It has to take in the research side of our work (quite a bit of which – let’s be honest about it – is funded from tuition income). It has to examine our role in our communities. And it has to be based on evidence.

Where I stand on this debate is straightforward: I think higher education has a mix of private and public good outcomes. And I think these are skewed, with the majority of benefits accruing to those who are already relatively advantaged by parentage and by circumstances. For me it follows that free tuition is socially regressive as it mainly benefits the middle and upper social strata, and also implies a cap on student numbers; while high fees damage society and economy alike by building up massive debt. 

My preference is for some kind of graduate endowment, as proposed by the Cubie Committee in Scotland in 1999, payable after graduation once the graduate’s earnings reach a defined point above the national average earnings. And I’d accompany it with means-tested living grants for disadvantaged students. In today’s polarised debate this might seem a long way off, but it is clear that neither free tuition nor the current fee level are sustainable, so change is going to come. And while we are at it, we might also look for a student funding system that promotes part-time higher education for people in work.

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Adult learning and the UK election: (2) the Labour Party

At the time of writing, the Labour Party looks set to come second in the election. If so, it will form the main opposition to the government, where its thinking on lifelong learning will inevitably have an impact on public debate, and will continue to develop in opposition. And Labour is still a major force in local and regional government, as well as forming the largest single party in Wales. So its ideas on lifelong learning matter.

New Picture

I’ve already summarised and criticised the Conservatives’ ideas on adult learning in a previous post. I’ll turn my attention to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the next few days; UKIP can safely be ignored, as its manifesto says nothing about post-school education other than to call for lower student numbers in higher education and to propose a German-style (ironically) of dual system for apprentice training.

Like the Conservatives, Labour is using the manifesto to set out its broad industrial strategy. Labour’s manifesto says little directly about the role of skills in industrial strategy, other than proposing that public sector procurement should be used to leverage high employment standards, including providing training. Rightly, in my view, their industrial strategy focuses on growing the number of high value jobs, and thus increasing the demand for skills.

Skills supply is dealt with mainly in the context of Labour’s proposals for a National Education Service. What exactly is ‘National’ about it is unclear; Labour evidently intends not to remove education from the devolved administrations, but the manifesto underplays the fact that this would be a ‘National (English) Education Service’.

While this Service will somehow be ‘unified’, the manifesto does not suggest abolishing university autonomy or reducing the role of local government, and it does suggest devolving skills budgets to city regions, so at the moment it is completely unclear to me how and in what sense this will be a ‘National’ service, comparable to the NHS.

Labour’s plans for an NES have huge financial implications: the Service, it says, will ‘move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use’, incorporating ‘all forms of education, from early years through to adult education’. I guess (because it isn’t stated) that Labour believe or hope that higher skills will produce higher growth and thus raise the tax take.

Over two pages are devoted to a chapter on Skills. On further education, the manifesto calls for an end to constant structural change in the sector, and proposes investing in the sector through such measures as rebalancing the funding allocations between colleges and schools sixth forms, restoring Educational Maintenance Allowances, replacing tuition fees with a direct grant, and requiring all FE teaching staff to have a teaching qualification. It also proposes to restore cuts to UnionLearn, and to establish a Commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education.

On the whole this sounds like an attractive package, but there are several unanswered questions. Leaving aside the lack of clarity over the cost of these proposals, it is unclear who might be covered by the requirement to have a teaching qualification (what about part-time staff, for example?), and the rather general idea of ‘integrating further and higher education’ could mean anything from encouragement for local collaborative arrangements through to a fully-fledged tertiary system.

Most of the proposals for apprenticeships seem eminently sensible, and indeed are not a million miles away from Conservative thinking. Shifting the emphasis from recruitment targets to achievement at Level 3 is consistent with the aim of a high skills workforce. The idea of targets for ‘people with disabilities, care-leavers and veterans’ is worthwhile, though they will raise concerns about box-ticking and bureaucracy. And some will explode with fury over the very idea of incentives for large employers to over-train numbers of apprentices to fill skills gaps in the supply chain and the wider sector.

So far as higher education specifically is concerned, the manifesto limits itself to proposing free tuition and the reintroduction of maintenance grants. While this may be electorally popular, particularly among the better educated young voters, free tuition in particularly is highly socially regressive, especially as in England fees are not paid up front, and their repayment is means-tested. Nor is it clear how these measures will apply to part-time and distance students.

As the Learning and Work Institute rightly points out, the absence of any discussion of work insertion programmes for unemployed people is a massive gap, even allowing for the manifesto’s emphasis on the creation of good work: strikingly, neither the word ‘unemployed’ or ‘unemployment’ appear even once.

Nevertheless, this manifesto suggests that someone in Labour’s inner circles has been thinking hard about further education and adult learning. As the Party is likely to spend at least another five years in opposition, there is much to build on in a manifesto that offers plenty of encouragement for those of us involved in adult learning.

Top of the League Tables: the Social Mobility Index

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

I sometimes think that what higher education really needs is a league table of higher education league tables. No, not really – but here is one league table that I would actually find useful: the Social Mobility Index sets out to identify which universities best serve the public interest. And the results are predictablly intriguing.

Basically, the Index measures performance against five criteria:

  1. the level of tuition fees, with the lowest fees being ranked highest;
  2. the socio-economic background of the students;
  3. the graduation rate, which effectively includes retention and success;
  4. the average early career salary of graduates;
  5. income from endowments, which like tuition fees are measured negatively, on the grounds that a university which does something without endowment income is likely to be more efficient than one which does the same but with high endowment income.

These seem pretty reasonable criteria, and they can be measured fairly robustly.The Index seems to me to combine effectiveness measures with indicators of equity and student success. You won’t be surprised that I am quite keen to persuade someone like Phil Baty and the Times Higher to undertake a similar exercise in the UK, where similar data are readily available.

Indeed, with a pinch a suitably powerful government body (such as the European Commission) could probably collect such information for the whole of Europe. I wonder which universities would do well, and which would do badly, in a European Social Mobility League Table?

New Picture (2)

In the USA, which is what the current table covers, there is one clear winner. City University New York and its constituent colleges dominate the top position. What a great track record: best in the USA at taking disadvantaged students, ensuring they succeed, getting them valued in the labour market, and doing all this with low fees and low endowment. Yes, this is a league table I’d love to see replicated more widely.

The crisis in part-time higher education: its impact in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?

A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.

For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.

First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.

Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.

So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.

And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.

But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.

So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.

In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.

Legal advice on the EU and tuition fees in an independent Scotland

The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament

The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament

I’ve been banging on for a bit now about the Scottish Government’s belief that the EU would allow it to charge fees to students from the rest of the UK in the event of a Yes vot in September (I’m assuming that the independent monarchy of Scotland would be an EU member, mainly because I can think of no good reason why it would not be, and if the UK is still a member, I’m certain that it would be arguing strongly in support of Scotland’s membership).

The Government’s White Paper on independence guarantees free tuition for Scottish higher education students, while charging tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK. This proposal has been challenged by a number of European officials and former officials. Huw Lewis, the Welsh education minister, has predicted that he will have to join a queue of people wanting to sue the Scottish Government if it attempts to proceed with its plans.

The Scottish Government’s response has been to repeat the claim in the White Paper that it has been advised that it will have an ‘objective justification’ for exempting Scotland from EU law on equal access to higher education for all European citizens. It claims that this is consistent with the legal advice it has received (but which it will not publish), and that ‘This is a point made by Universities Scotland too’.

Universities Scotland commissioned its own legal advice, which is now in the public domain. It received eight pages of cautiously worded advice in April 2013. I’ll happily discuss it in greater detail if anyone is interested, but I imagine most people will be satisfied with the conclusion, which consists of the following two paragraphs:

As a matter of EU law it would appear that it may be possible to rely upon a residency requirement for access to preferential fees and grants regimes so long as that requirement is applied to all students regardless of their nationality and can be objectively justified.

It will be for the government seeking to introduce such a regime to establish, on evidence, that there is a legitimate aim which can be objectively justified which would allow them to derogate from the overriding principles of freedom of movement and non discrimination.

Decide for yourself whether this suggests any realistic prospect of the Scottish Government persuading the EU to over-ride its core principles of non-discrimination and free movement of labour.