Wednesday, 11 May 2011

More bad education policy, more misguided criticism of same

Education funding policy is back in the news again after journalists noticed that David Willetts MP (Conservative, Havant, Minister for Universities and Science) had suggested that in addition to the publicly-funded places, universities should be able to offer unfunded places to UK students, with the fees payable up front.

Cue massive misplaced outrage about the rich being able to buy university places.

The proposals had a lot wrong with them, and they appear to be being either quietly dropped or quietly hidden for a few weeks. That they let the rich buy university places was not one of the problems.

A quick recap

Undergraduate places available to UK applicants are subject to a strict quota, with universities facing harsh penalties to either under- or over-recruiting to that quota1. Since the universities have to make offers to most potential undergraduates without knowing if those undergraduates would make the grade, this causes a lot of tension among admissions departments, since making the wrong number of offers is a very costly mistake.

On the other hand, if there wasn't a penalty, then the government could be required to pay for far more places than it had budgeted for (yes, they're going to end up doing this anyway)

Places for international undergraduates are not subject to any direct2 quota - universities can recruit as many suitably qualified applicants as they can attract. However, there is no UK public funding for these students (though some may obtain grants from their home country's government, of course) and so they must pay the full costs of their degree - which can be whatever the university declares them to be.

The proposal would allow (or rather have allowed) universities to also supply "off-quota" places to UK students, on the same terms. This would quite clearly not have worked.

Why it was (yet another) doomed idea

Students needing these places are the ones who have failed to successfully compete with the other UK undergraduates for the publicly-funded places. That doesn't make them underqualified - universities reject plenty of straight-A students - but it does mean that they're unlikely to do any better competing against the international undergraduates for the off-quota places.

While there's no externally-imposed limit on how many off-quota undergraduates a university can take, there are plenty of internal limits. Lecture theatre capacities, availability of academics to teach, and for some universities the availability of accommodation for students are all limiting factors. Being willing to pay the off-quota fees doesn't avoid competition - it just gives a second chance.

Since the students who go to study abroad tend to be the best a country has to show, getting a place on this second chance is probably going to be even harder than getting one of the publicly-funded places.

The idea was that the fees would be paid from corporate or charity sponsorship, rather than directly by the student - but what company3 is going to sponsor someone to go to university who couldn't get an offer the normal way? Far more cost effective for them to provide some living-cost grants to several students who did get in.

The number of UK students who actually took an off-quota place - and bear in mind anyone rich enough to do this could study abroad instead - would be tiny.

Like many of this government's policy ideas, it seems to be a way to generate controversy, reinforce their reputation (both constituent parties) as a party for the default, and not actually help any of the people they were nominally supporting.

Not buying places for the rich

What this outrage basically ignores is that the ultra-rich can and do already buy university places for their children.

The admissions processes of universities try to be fair and judge each candidate on their merits. This just isn't possible from a few expected grades, a short personal statement, and maybe a 10 minute interview - especially not with the number of applications that need processing - but universities generally do their best.

The problem is that - as with everything else - a context-free equality of treatment just gives the advantage to those who already have privilege. Rich families can give their children many of:

  1. A home environment focused on academic learning4
  2. Private schooling
  3. Interview practice (especially for Oxbridge)
  4. Private tutors
  5. Access to expensive extra-curricular activities, including gap years, that look good on a personal statement

Middle-class families can give their children enough of those privileges to give them a good chance at a place as well, which is why there's not much wider complaint about this arrangement.

Being outraged that the rich would be able to buy their children university places at market rates rather than subsidised rates is rather strange, in that context - I'm sure that if a "left-wing" group had proposed means-testing fees support so that the ultra-rich weren't entitled to any and had to pay up front, there would have been very little complaint5.

Footnotes (and extended asides)

1 The total quota for all UK universities is smaller than the number of people who would like a UK undergraduate place. This is a major reason why the whole "market in higher education" won't work - as can be seen by the vast majority of universities declaring at £9,000 - demand outstrips supply. The threats of "A uni that as an Oxbridge graduate I consider a Third Rate Ex-Poly can't charge £9,000 - students will go elsewhere" that ministers were making were completely empty: applicants have nowhere else to go except "not to university at all".

Then recall that students are effectively not paying the fees with their own money due to the extremely generous loan repayment terms (which resemble a tax more than a loan), for many students the repayments when/if they graduate on a £7,000 a year degree and on a £9,000 a year degree will be exactly identical; for the rest there will be relatively little difference, and earning a salary in excess of £40,000 a year1a will probably make them uninclined to care.

So demand is higher than supply, and the difference between the low and high prices is negligible. No-one has an incentive to charge a low price, and no-one has any economic reason not to pay. (Fear of debt, because of all the huge numbers being thrown around, is a reasonable but not economically sound reason)

I've actually been quite surprised by how many universities haven't declared £9k fees across the board - I expect by 2014 or thereabouts the fees will have crept up to this.

1a I'm not saying all graduates will go on to a 40k or above salary - I'm saying that only those who do will notice a difference in repayments between those two costs of degrees.

2 The whole "we will cap immigration to a round number whether it's a good idea or not" policy that the government is imposing does provide a national limit. This has already led to conflicts on international student numbers between the government departments responsible for racism ("keep those foreigners out!") and money ("they're willing to pay tens of thousands to UK organisations, let them in!")

3 Of course, a family rich enough to afford the up-front fees can probably also afford a front company to pay the grant, but they can probably also afford to just buy the place the old-fashioned way.

4 And because this is something that the rich provide, academic learning becomes morally more valuable than other ways in which a home environment can be good.

5 I would have objected to this, because the problem with this means-testing (and it's a problem with the existing set-up too) is that it assumes that the only barrier to all young applicants to university getting financial support from their families is their wealth. Applicants whose families don't want to fund them through university but theoretically could get the short end of this stick.

The NUS LGBT campaign has been pointing out from years that the students they represent are particularly vulnerable to their family refusing financial support; they're not the only un-privileged group of students this applies to.