University Education, Again

Rafael Behr has an argument in The Guardian today  for the planned UK tuition-fee regime for tertiary education based on a “Teaching Excellence Framework”. Reasonable, well-written, but large parts of it seem to me wrong. Let me pick on a couple here.

Behr is right that some market mechanisms in tertiary education are appropriate. But not all are. There was a pure market in English education before WW II. It manifestly didn’t work to do most of the things we want from tertiary education nowadays, although it did work to do some of them. Exceptionally clever people from impecuniary backgrounds could occasionally “make it”, but it’s hard to find any renowned intellectuals up until the 1960’s who didn’t have a family background we would now consider privileged. If your parents didn’t have money or other access, you got out of school and went to work. Period.

After World War II came increased access for the less-than-privileged, with grants. Grants covered tuition (for many) and living expenses (for some, means-tested). Great! But Behr deprecates it:

There was no golden age of free university education. There was a period when the state covered tuition costs and disbursed maintenance grants for undergraduates regardless of their financial circumstances, but it was a brief and ungilded: 1977 to 1985.


This is thoroughly misleading.

I went to (English) university in 1970-73, seven years before Behr’s “gilded age”. My tuition was paid for by the government. I got a grant for living expenses, and supplemented this by working in London (for the Central Electricity Generating Board’s engineering department in Paternoster Square) over the summers. This enabled me to live in college for nine months, with a couple weeks at home over Christmas and a week at Easter, buy an appropriate number of books to support my interests (£2.25 for a hardback Wittgenstein, ouch; why not 12/- like for a Penguin Hume? I wasn’t an economist), and then pay off my excess costs over the summer while working in engineering and visiting some of the world’s best museums, galleries and gardens for free. My parents had no money. My Dad was a school teacher (later a college teacher) from a working-class family, and my mother was a part-time school teacher (later librarian). They contributed about £100 a term for three terms per year to my living expenses, and had to struggle to do that.

There is no doubt we university students were an elite. How much of an elite can be determined from this UK government report made available by UNESCO. Table D, p22, tells us that there were 595,000 school leavers in 1966-7, and 613,000 in 1972-3. Table G, p25, tells us that there were 115,000 university students (undergrads) in 1966-7 and 149,000 in 1972-3. Most undergrad courses then were three years long, so to compare with the population of school-leavers we can divide these latter figures by 3. That gives 6% in 1966-7 rising to 8% in 1972-3. Tony Blair’s idea of 50% in 1999 was radical – in the right direction, says this university professor who considers tertiary education an unmitigated social good. And I have experienced it – the US has some 55% of its school leavers in tertiary education. Of course, a lot of them drop out, but equally a lot of them come back later. It is a different system, but features of it are supremely worth emulating anywhere and its inclusiveness is one.

How did we 6% get there? I went to a selective school, Queen Mary’s Grammar School in Walsall, with about 600 male pupils from a catchment area of (I’m guessing) a couple hundred thousand population. We did good – there were six of us specialising in Maths at A-level, four of us went to university, and two of us are Professors as far as I know – the other one was Steve Gallivan. It was elite, but less so than 30 years before when we couldn’t have afforded the universities we went to, and within its constraints it worked very well for me, as well as for Steve I guess. (Going to a great university in the US in 1973 for post-grad work, and teaching a university math course, to find that most of the participants couldn’t do stuff that most of my schoolmates could do when we were 14, was quite a culture shock!) And even if we were an “elite”, none of our parents had any money.

Behr thinks that

Meanwhile fees have not choked off applications by teenagers from lower income backgrounds, who are capable of grasping the cost-benefit equation involved in borrowing against future earnings to get a degree.


Neither I nor anybody else in my sixth form was “capable of grasping the cost-benefit equation involved….”. After I went to university in the UK, I went off to the University of California at Berkeley, where I had to balance my monthly books without any fall mat under me at all. I was faced with tuition fees of (gasp!) $350 per quarter (term) with a “waiver”, and fees of (aaargh!) $750 per term without. Waivers were granted one by one. My income from my teaching-assistant position had to cover that, and I had to hope term-by-term for waivers. Cost-benefit analysis, of that situation in California from a small house in Walsall, Staffordshire? My hat!

I took a risk and was lucky it paid off. But I was stink-poor compared with my peers until I was in my thirties. It worked out, thank heavens. That life can no longer be lived.

My professional experience has been that very few people can do effective or even half-way accurate cost-benefit analyses and act on them, and that includes most of my contemporary university colleagues (that’s fine; I can’t read Chinese, build molecular models, operate laser measurement apparatus, or tell you about the foundations of tax law in Germany). The suggestion that 18 year-old school students can do them borders on the absurd. The best that can be hoped for is a new profession of financial counselling for teenagers considering tertiary education. Is the government going to pay for that, or is that more money out of a teenager’s future income? And how to control for the quality of counselling?

Behr thinks further that

Writing off the debts of low-earning graduates has become a significant form of stealthy state subsidy for higher education.


There is a lot wrapped up in that simple sentence. Here is an article by Susan Dynarski on the how that works in the US , and another by Kevin Carey , as well as one by Carey on the travails of the indebted and another by Gretchen Morgenson on how the system disadvantages the borrower. These are just from last year. The New York Times has a plethora of articles on indebtedness from studying, and the issues involved, going back many years. I experienced what this social system was like in my almost-two decades in California. The system teaches many students what being in debt without collateral is like (it’s awful), as well as how to cheat on debt. The first lesson is worth learning, but surely avoidance with awareness is preferable, like with hard drugs. The second lesson is socially damaging in any event.

I incline to the view that student indebtedness in the US is a so-far-unmitigated social disaster. Britain is in its fifth year of experimenting with it. What reasons are there for thinking it will turn out better than in the US?

My view on tuition fees has been fairly constant. The Blair introduction of what could reasonably be considered a nominal fee for tuition was appropriate. Since my time, there was an issue of freeloading – people going to university because they couldn’t figure out what else to do – which a non-trivial fee mitigates. This fee was essentially tripled a decade later, by a government whose leaders are former Bullingdon boys who have no personal experience whatever of life-transforming debt, to a point at which it can only be accommodated for most students by long-term debt. That is a radical transformation, without successful precedent. One big social experiment, whose failure would be a disaster for the country. And here we are a couple of years later, fiddling with it yet again! How wise can that be?

My guess as to how the experiment will work is not positive. Debt traps. Student debt traps bright young people at the very time when they could be “spreading their wings” and finding out what opportunities the world offers. My life can no longer be lived in modern-day Britain. I regret it.

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