Sunday, 27 December 2009

Feed up with all this

The latest people to weigh in on the university funding debate are Professor Danny Blanchflower and the Observer's editorial writers.

Blanchflower is the genius economist who consistently made the right calls as the recession unfolded, when he was on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee. He was, of course, ignored. Now, he's suggested that universities should charge rich people £30,000 to attend university, to subsidise the poor, as in the US. The argument is that it's a matter of fairness. After all, many of the rich happily shell out this sort of money to make sure that their kids only meet other rich kids at private schools.

"What is crazy is that people are prepared to pay all that money to send their kids to private school – almost £30,000 a year to go to Eton – but they are not prepared to pay the money to go to university," Blanchflower said. "Universities are strapped for cash and need more money. So you make the rich pay the market price and use that money to fund the poor."

"The poor have been subsidising the rich. And now the rich are shouting because they are losing their subsidy – because they are paying £3,000 to go to Oxford and they should be paying £30,000." Under the system he was proposing, top universities might charge tens of thousands of pounds but others would ask for much less. Students would have to consider the cost against the potential rate of return.
At Dartmouth, Blanchflower claimed fees helped to "focus the mind", with students turning up to lectures, not dropping out and more likely to choose subjects that made them most employable. 

Beguiling idea… but:

Rich kids and poor kids don't tend to go to the same universities. Bar a few who are cherry-picked by the Russell Group of élite universities, poor kids go to local universities, and to the former polytechnics. They tend to be connected to their local communities by obligation (family responsibility, for instance) and less desperate to rise out of, rather than with, their class. If Oxford starts charging £30,000, it will happily fill up with the rich and won't lift a finger to attract the poor. It's over 50% privately-educated students now, despite only 6% of the school population attending such schools. That's a massive public subsidy to the rich, but Blanchflower's solution alone won't help.

I would suggest distributing these massive fees centrally to fund all universities, rather than let the Russell Group cheat while starving places like mine.


tax people properly so they don't have this kind of cash lying around. Obviously I'd spend it on state schooling etc. so that they don't feel the need to avoid state service.

Blanchflower's model is thinly disguised dog-eat-dog capitalism. He suggests that students will choose only 'employable' degrees: so what happens to theoretical mathematics, Anglo-Saxon, pure physics and the like? We'll end up with a nation of lawyers and Business Studies graduates without an original thought in their heads. Choice will only be available to the rich: 'unfashionable' universities won't be able to charge high fees. They'll lose the best staff and the best students and the two-tier system will be entrenched for ever.

The Observer likes Blanchflower's idea, without even mentioning any drawbacks. But at least it's conscious of the pressures now facing universities under Mandelson's malign tutelage:

The government's arbitrary demand for 50% of the population to attend university was a virtuous aspiration as India, America and China churn out ever more graduates, yet the expansion was never properly funded and the result increasingly seems to be overcrowded lectures, distant professors, high dropout rates and inflated degree results.
Mandelson offered the solution of two-year or part-time courses, but that looks less than convincing. The mass production of McDegrees will only devalue their place in the jobs market and lead to a surge in postgraduate applications. What is more, the broader merit of a university education – the formation of friendships, the exploration of ideas, the rounding of character – would be weakened. Of course, such aspirations were never going to survive the move of higher education to the department for business.

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