The New APPS interview with Alessandra Tanesini, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University, will run in two parts. Part II is here; Part I was last week.
Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
In the UK this is an enormous issue; we are entering a phase that is likely to change British Higher Education beyond all recognition. The big hike in students’ fees is what has made the headline news, but there are other changes that in my view will prove as significant. I believe that education is a public as well as a private good. The education of students benefits society as a whole and also the individual recipients. However, it does not automatically follow from this that education should be paid for by the public pursue. Road infrastructure is a public good in the same way but it does not seem inappropriate for users to pay to use a bridge or a motorway. What matters most in my view is not so much whether the cost of education comes from general taxation or whether individual students have to make a substantial contribution to the cost of their education but whether the arrangements, whatever they might be, do not put off people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In this regard a graduate tax, if practicable, might have been a better option than a rise in fees since there is evidence that people think of student loans as debt but would not think of a graduate tax in the same way. Financially speaking there probably is little difference between the two given the way students’ loans are being set up.
Many colleagues here bemoan the loss of the government teaching grant and the whole move to a private financing of higher education. I have to confess that I don’t wholly agree.
It is true that the money saved will not be diverted by the current government to pay for the right things, which for me is primarily the public funding of excellent pre-16 education for everybody and of an excellent health system which is free at the point of use. I single these out because I take both health and pre-16 education to be a right (however, one wishes to construe talk of rights). University education, instead, is not a right despite being an important good.
Further, the whole issue should be seen in the context of current pre-university educational arrangements. In the UK most rich and also middle class families pay for their kids education in what are confusingly called ‘public schools’. These schools often cost more than £9K per year (the undergraduate student fee in many universities as of next year) and offer a far superior education to that provided by much of the state run system. Those well-off parents who don’t privately educate their children, instead pay through the nose to buy a property in the catchment areas of the few excellent government funded schools. Either way the poor are largely shut out from the best schools in the country. There might be a few exceptions, but these do not change the rules. In this manner the well-off pay for their children to get the kind of education that makes it more likely that they will end up at a top University where until now their studies were largely paid from general taxation. These graduates do benefit society as a whole but their education also preserves and continues the privileges they inherited from their parents and which they will hand over to their children. As a result the UK is one of the countries with the least social mobility in the whole of Europe.
So the current system is not ideal and the expansion of Higher Education in the UK has not seen large numbers of underprivileged students join good or excellent universities. Any even cursory look at the admission figures for top institutions will testify to that. For these reasons I think it is a good idea that the middle classes pay more for their students’ university education and that some of the money at least is used for bursaries. The government role should be to pay for the kind of well-rounded education that, besides being good for the flourishing of students, makes it possible for kids from all classes to gain access to top institutions.
So I am not particularly against the fees but what I am against is the very flawed notion of a market introduced in Higher Education. Saying that users of a service should share some or even most of the costs is not to say that these costs should be set by markets. When drivers pay a toll to enter Wales on the Severn Bridge the cost is not set by the market; fares do not directly depend on what drivers are prepared to pay to avoid lengthening their journeys. The fares are determined by the cost of building and maintaining the bridge and by an estimate of the number and kind of user of the infrastructure. I see no reason why education should not be treated in the same way, fees could be determined by the cost of running Universities as non-for profit organizations which collaborate rather than compete with one another.
So that the government wants to introduce a market in higher education is a bad thing. But things are even worse when we consider what sort of market the government is planning to introduce. It is a rigged market. It is as if the Olympic Committee were to tell some athletes that they should hop the hundred meters, whilst allowing others to run. So the UK government, perhaps frightened by the fact that the average fee set by institutions is higher than what they envisaged and considering that the government will have to fork up the money upfront in the form of loans, which students will re-pay over a very long period of time, has in England continued the practice of having a definite number of funded places and has reserved a number of them to institutions with an average fee of £7.5K or less.
At the other hand of the scale it has allowed universities that attract some of the higher achieving students to expand their places for top students. It is hard to say precisely what effects these policies will have in England and what repercussions they will have for institutions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where education is a devolved matter and where different policies have been set by the relevant government or assembly. Either way the policy of reserving extra places for Universities with lower than average fees is particularly pernicious. It was announced after Universities set their fees and so it is unfair because it has prevented institutions from developing an appropriate strategy. But it is doubly unfair because many institutions which aimed to attract students from lower socio-economic backgrounds had struck the balance between fees levels and number and size of scholarships in favour of the latter. Thus, hoping that the poorest students would receive the kind of financial support that would allow them not just to pay the fees but support themselves through their studies. These institutions are now at a disadvantage compared to those who chose to keep fees down at the cost of providing fewer bursaries. They are all busy re-negotiating their agreements with the higher funding council for England.
Cardiff is the premier research HE institution in Wales and I think the largest university. We really do not know how the changes in England will affect us. In particular we do not know whether the fact that the Welsh Government has pledged to pay the hike in fees for all Welsh residents no matter where they study will encourage a student flow away from Wales. It might be that a large proportion of the Welsh education budget will end in the coffers of the top English Universities. I should add that the money in that budget comes from UK wide taxation, so what we might have is tax paid by all UK residents including those of England given to the Welsh Government used to pay Welsh residents to study mostly in England. It all sounds quite bizarre. From where I stand the focus is all on improving our teaching provision to students to prevent any drain away. And that is not such a bad thing.
I should also add that I think it is confusing to conflate the whole question of the funding of Universities with other important questions about the value and purpose of Universities. I am afraid that both the Government and its critics fail to make important distinctions here. The critics are right that Universities are not mere conduits for employability. Education is an intrinsic and internal good; it is not a commodity. They are also right that education is a public good because it benefits society and not just the students themselves. On all points about values I am in total agreement with the position of the critics as detailed in their Alternative to the Government White Paper which I believe will soon be published. But I disagree with them that public funding of excellent institutions in the UK attracting at least 50% of any cohort of 18 year olds is affordable.
The infrastructure of most universities is in serious need of revamping, salary costs are standing at over 90% of total budgets in several departments, research funding is decreasing year on year. And of course there are the time bombs of funding public pensions and health care in the context of an ageing population. I find unrealistic and disappointing that academics should insist on the matter of public funding with little consideration given to affordability when as far as I can see no one claims that University education is a right.