Subjective Objectivity – The Blog of The Reasonable Man

December 4, 2010

Student Fees, a rejoinder to a rejoinder

Filed under: Uncategorized — mikeshotgun @ 6:02 pm

Nick helpfully fleshes out the student fees debate and challenges some of my points. He also cites this piece about student activism from the Guardian, which I have a number of issues with as a piece of reportage, but I could write an entirely separate post on that. Herein my responses.

My original points in blockquotes, Nick’s responses in bold. Hopefully this won’t get too messy, in a formatting sense.

  1. I’ve not heard, among any of the protesters, any substantive manner of plugging the cost gap of higher education whilst increasing participation in said institution.

I suppose the main way would be by increasing taxation or channelling funding from elsewhere.

As I’ve written in the comments, I’ve some sympathy to this. I actually think the whole tax system needs an overhaul to maximise simplicity and revenue. What I meant is that the protesters don’t seem to have much beyond a wholesale rejection of the very notion of fees and some non-sequiturs about bankers. But to be plain, further tax burden in the name of higher education would be a tough, if not impossible, political sell. Maybe if we weren’t intent on deficit spending as a method of government financing, then we might have some money for this.

I guess I really think that the big issue that no one is really tackling is the assumption that more than half of school leavers ought to be entitled to degrees at the expense of the state. To call bullshits on this notion is usually to be labelled an elitist, but no one’s really questioning it, and it’s a shame, because it’s pretty much the cause of tuition fees and reduced maintenance grants. Back when only 10%, 20% or so of the population went to university, this a workable and good idea. As we tip 50%, it’s utterly unsustainable. But having crossed that particular Rubicon no party is willing to contemplate the reduction in participation. Indeed, the Labour Party Manifesto committed to 75% of people going into higher education. 

 2. The violence is getting a lot more coverage than it should be. To wit, the Telegraph are making it seem like every student is a violent sociopath, and the Guardian are making it seem like these kids are protesting against the Corn Laws.

Agreed, this is the way the media want to frame it. 

To be doubly clear I was pretty cynical about student activism when I was myself a student. It’s not really built into our national DNA. You can point to students “leading the revolution” on the continent all you want, but they were usually protesting against… you know, actual injustice.

 3. “Kettling” has taken on Orwellian overtones. It’s kind of pathetic to see the comfortable baby boomers who put us all in this position basically wank over their hey-day protest memories and project them on this generation.

I think I agree, though I’m not really sure what point you’re making about “kettling”. “Kettling” is pretty bad, by all accounts, and is part of the police treating all protesters like criminals. I was under the impression that this government was going to relax the illiberal laws on things like peacful protest. 

I wasn’t really making a point, just getting annoyed by the constant use of the phrase as if it was a akin to tasering. My understanding about the objections to kettling is that it deprives those in the “kettle” of access to toilets, food and water. This is how and why it’s been challenged in the courts. I also understand that on this occasion, portable toilets and water were being provided by the police. I also think there’s a distinction between laws on protest and the discretion afforded the police in how they control such protests. To the latter, the swathes of criticism they got over the first protest led to a sterner approach on this occasion. To the former, the protests have been going ahead, there have been observable criminal elements in the past and there were again. As I understand, not every protester everywhere was kettled, it was confined to the rowdiest part of the demonstration in Whitehall and was deployed only after things started kicking off and the rumour spread that they were going to attack the Lib Dem HQ. Where protests were peaceful, no kettling occurred. To read the Guardian, New Statesman and so on, you would have assumed that anyone under the age of 18 in London that day was subject to the Peterloo massacre.

Let’s be clear, when you have kids as young as 13 going to Westminster, where all the violent pricks will be going as well things are not going to end prettily. Is this “police violence used against children?”. If you’re a headline writer, then I guess it is. For me the story was “Poorly planned protest ends with moderate injury to van, no others”

 4. If you were to poll most protesters, I reckon the majority would not know that the new system means that tuition fees are not payable up front. Or that it’s likely that most fees will be doubled, rather than tripled. Or that the Browne Review is a document that someone could have read. 

There are two issues here. First is about not paying fees upfront. I think that the problem here is that those from wealthy backgrounds will often have their parents paying for the fees upfront anyway (or setting up some kind of fund to pay it back later) while poorer students will be lumped with these fees which start accumulating interest once they’ve finished studying. There is also the problem that those from less privileged backgrounds might be more reluctant to start a degree which is going to end up costing them so much. 

Secondly it appears that the Russell Group universities will be going for the full (tripled) fees, while other (less prestigious) universities will go for the less increased (doubled) fees. Again this creates another gap between the haves and have-nots, possibly even leading to a two tier system of higher education. 

As I recall from the Browne review, even the IFS (whose word is sacrosanct in many corners these days) said that the main barrier to entry is upfront fees. The proposals here eliminate that, albeit at more expense at a later point. But the point you’re making is that the rich will win under these proposals. They already win. The two tier education system pretty much already exists, and it does so before the University stage. The Russell Group have very strict entry standards, which favour those in private school already. 

I think the distinction between the Russell Group and the rest is a distraction – if we view those “second tier” universities as somehow debased, then what purpose are they really serving? Or are, they filling an intermediate tier in the higher education system which may actually be necessary if we consider the value of participation as a given? It’s not as if these less prestigious organisations don’t already exist, and don’t currently educate students. 

And if receiving offers from both “tiers”, my 17-year old self (not from a high income family by any metric) would go for the Russell Group every time. If others think differently, then that’s all the more education for teenage Pete. Who knows, maybe he’ll see more action this time round. 

And the triple fees do require the institution to promote access to poorer students. It’s not clear how this will work, and could very well be a mere formality, but my main point about the triple fees generally is that it’s been a standard line to exaggerate the proposals made by this government (ZOMG 50% CUTZ!!!!) which the reality doesn’t quite meet. Now, show me a protest group whose slogan is “ENSURE THAT UNIVERSITIES CHARGING THE FULL AMOUNT TAKE ADEQUATE STEPS TO INCREASE THEIR LOWER INCOME INTAKE!!!” and then we’re having a conversation. Hell, this is probably a good movement notwithstanding any cuts.

 5. My current student debts are roughly what most three year course attendees will be facing, and are far less favourable terms than theirs will be. Far less. If am to spend more than a few months unemployed, I will have to declare bankruptcy. In other words, I am not unsympathetic to the notion of student debt.

Almost conversely I’m in a very different situation. Though I’ll finish this degree with much higher debts than most of these future students will face, my terms are pretty good and bankruptcy isn’t a risk. I am also sympathetic. 

Obviously there’s no disagreement here. But under the proposed system, the £21,000 threshold is quite a generous one. IF higher education doesn’t pan out for these kids, they’re not getting hounded for loans they can’t afford the repayments on. Yes it’s a debt, but what isn’t these days?

 6. Concerns that (A) the commodification of higher education is a bad thing and (B) higher education should be an engine for social mobility, are not really compatible.

I’d like you to expand on this thought further, though I’d probably argue that B is more important than A anyway.

My main point here is that there’s been a lot of media wanking over the fact that the beauty of higher education institutions where someone can just learn for learning’s sake will be trampled by the commodification (i.e. market pricing) of such high minded courses. In almost the same breath, they’ve decried the effect on social mobility and the fact that universities will become elitist educations, despite the first sentiment being an incredibly elitist view of education.

To the extent that social mobility is the goal, a degree becomes a commodity with actual value, subject to a market price with a graduate premium on wages being the reward. If you can afford to take a degree just for the sake of it, then you’re not from a lower income group, and I’ll not subsidise your indulgence. 

 7. I’m not certain the current Opposition, who introduced both tuition fees, top-up fees and the Browne Review, would have done much differently, as much as like Ed Miliband would like to fantasise about “talking to” students.

Though this may well be true it doesn’t change the fact that those out protesting have valid concerns which can only be addressed by the current government, not the opposition. 

True- my main point here is pointing out the basic hypocrisy of the Tory Scum tone. Also that in promoting an expansion in University attendance and commissioning the Browne Review in the first place (whose outcome was pretty predictable) there is actually a broader consensus for fee increases than one would believe. Of course, that wouldn’t be convenient to the Narrative. 

 8. If you celebrate “Tory Scum” as a political viewpoint, then I am afraid your commitment to our shared reality is somewhat wanting. Similarly, if you excoriate a political party whose modus operandi  was opposition to government for abandoning one of their most utterly populist viewpoints once actually presented with the responsibilities of government, then you are so naive I might question the value of your university education. 

Not much I can say to this, other than I suppose see here

Yep. I’ll also add that the Liberal Democrats came third. Their manifesto was essentially a negotiating instrument in coalition talks back in May. Abolishing tuition fees was one of their least practical policies and would always go, no matter which party the coalesced with.

 9. Higher education has almost nothing to do with the welfare state. A “right” that has entry qualifications is not a right – quite the opposite! That we are pretending that university education used to be some sort of socialist utopian ideal is utterly ahistorical.

There is probably some overlap though. If we can agree that higher education does increase social mobility (and I’d be willing to entertain an argument that it no longer does) then it is a valid part of a welfare state. Also, if higher education increases lifetime earnings then getting more people educated at this level will, possibly, reduce strain on the welfare state. One could also argue that it is better to have people in education (and supported by the state) than on other forms of welfare. 

Around the time the welfare state was first constructed (The late 1940s) university participation was roughly 6%. This allowed the state to fund the situation, as it wasn’t a huge expense. As to your specific points, forgive me if I misunderstand, but aren’t they arguments that could be levied in favour of a two-tier education system (i.e. one where at least some form of education that will increase employability is desirable)? But in any event, the question is where do set your aims vis-a-vis participation. There’s a tipping point at which the jobs that require graduate education get filled. I doubt 50% of jobs out there for young people (i.e. entry level roles at any level) require or even desire degrees.  On your last sentence I agree, but that requires far too many contingencies and unknowns to be effectively budgeted in any welfare state. I guess this all depends on what purpose one think’s the welfare state ought to serve, and whether it is, or is capable of, doing that effectively.

 10. From the annals of irony: A graduate tax would be spread across all graduates regardless or else it’d be roughly unworkable, in essence becoming a regressive form of taxation. The proposed method of paying back kicks in over £21,000 a year, and is payable on the basis that you continue to earn that for 30 years hence. In other words, it punishes success more so. Yet the latter is favoured by a conservative coalition and the former a Labour opposition. The mind boggles.

The appeal of a graduate tax is that it would mean the baby boomers that you referenced in point 3 above would have to pay. That the generation that not only received free higher education, but also were given grants to live on, can pay something towards funding future students seems appropriate. Kicking in at £21,000 does seem too low, though where an appropriate level would be is unclear. Finally, if you’re going to frame it as punishing success then that claim could be levelled at all progressive taxation, which surely you’re not suggesting. I’m not saying that a graduate tax makes more sense, just that it makes some sense.

I suppose I agree with a lot of what’s been said on both sides of this argument, but at least people are going out on the streets and trying to do something about this. Most of the people that will be effected by an increase in fees had no part in creating the financial mess we’re in, nor any vote as to the government which is now in power. My question is: what else can they do?

I disagree about £21,000 being too low. £15,000 is too low. £21,000 is the rough average of a graduate’s entry level salary at least in London. It seems about fair to me. My use of the term “punish success” was not meant to indicate a distaste for the notion that if you’re successful you pay more, or progressive taxation in general. It was the first term at hand to describe the effect. The word “progressive” would have been better placed, I just hate using that word in reference to the tax system, despite its technical accuracy.

As to the merits of a graduate tax… where to begin? Firstly past graduates have already been paying for higher education. It’s called tax. To the extent that they benefited from the graduate premium, they’ve paid more tax! Sorry, that was a little glib, but the objections continue. You’ll have two degrees all told, do you therefore pay a higher graduate tax? Your medicine degree is longer than my law degree was – do pay more on that basis too? Both our degrees were probably more expensive than Jack’s history degree, especially if he did it at a less prestigious university. Does Jack pay less? If yes to any of these questions, how do you administer this portion of the tax code? If Jill dropped out of university after two years, does she still pay a graduate tax, or is it only for people who actually graduate? Also, am I, as a graduate, required to pay the same amount as someone who got their education for free with a maintenance grant? I don’t think that’s particularly fair. Is someone who could have quite comfortably paid for his education subject to the same tax as someone who genuinely needed the government to pay. How do you administer this Byzantine new tax and benefits code in a system that apparently can’t handle deceptively straightforward reforms to child benefits? Graduate tax is really easy to propose, until you subject it to even cursory scrutiny. I should know, I used to support it. 

I’ll state right now, that I have less of a problem with what students are actually doing, than I am the nauseating “children’s revolution” coverage it’s receiving. Go ahead, protest for all the harm it will do. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s actually doing anything to change the conversation. By constructing poorly formed arguments at best and resorting to obnoxious acts of violence at worst, they’re winning no one over to their cause. Hanging Nick Clegg in effigy is a special kind of pathetic.

Like I say, no one will admit it, but there is a cross-party consensus that there is a funding gap in higher education. That’s why the protesters have pre-lost this battle: “Not Cuts, No Fees” isn’t an option anyone is credibly offering. There will be no revolution. There never is.

What can they do? Admit that the baby boomer generation fucked us all. Sorry, we’ll all got burned on this deal. Worse than that, they were promised the middle-class dream that the last generation got. But it’s no longer in stock. Short of systemic change in our attitudes towards what passes for social advancement, we’re basically driving a car on its last legs to an uncertain destination and hoping that it’ll get us there. For their part, they can pledge that they’ll take this on the chin, and having done so, never allow such irresponsible social structures to form for their children, and mobilise a slow but focussed movement as taxpayers to pressure successive governments to form a more sustainable system of higher education for their children. Maybe a few of them will even form part of that government and in forty years we can remove all barriers to entry to higher education. Assuming our education system, nay, society can survive this cataclysmic reform*.

Does all this make me awfully cynical? Yes. But until the protesters have some sensible proposals or at the very least stop using end of the world rhetoric, I’ll probably not take them particularly seriously. 

Anyway. Where’s my bourbon?

*SPOILER ALERT – It will, subject to the timing of the Robot Apocalypse.

Cross-posted at Something Quotable


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