Tuition fees and universal benefits
Kevin Denny’s study on the impact of the ‘free fees’ scheme has sparked a lively discussion on the ‘Irish Economy’ website. One of the participants in the discussion is Labour Party TD Joanna Tuffy, and one of the points she makes there is the following:
‘My purpose in taking part in this discussion is not to stifle debate, nor political expediency. Labour passionately believes in the right to universal education at primary, second and third level and it is something that Labour has stood for right back to when its founder James Connolly called for free education up to the highest university grades back in 1896.’
At the heart of the Labour Party argument (when it’s not about shy taxi drivers) is the view that third level education should be treated as a universal benefit – i.e. a benefit that should be made available to the entire population. It is worth asking whether higher education is best provided as a universal benefit, but actually we could usefully ask how effective universal benefits are nowadays in a wider setting (a topic I have covered before).
The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.
Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.
The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.
As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.
It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.
Higher education is an extremely expensive service to provide, and in a developed knowledge economy it is probably beyond the taxpayer to fund it without a very significant targeted increase in taxation. Attempting to provide it free at the point of use without significant additional resources will result in a lower quality education system; but more than that, the very significant resources being provided to those who have the personal means to pay for it themselves compromise the state’s capacity to target the disadvantaged more effectively, as the money simply isn’t there (the wealthy have it). And it is this that has resulted in the lowest socio-economic groups still remaining largely excluded from higher education. Furthermore, it is also possible to address the needs of middle income groups without throwing money at the rich.
Joanna Tuffy, in her contribution to the debate on the ‘Irish Economy’ website quoted above, suggested that James Connolly’s call for free universal education ‘up to the highest university grades’ in 1896 is still relevant today. It isn’t. Back then fewer than 2 per cent of the Irish population participated in higher education, while today it is over 60 per cent. Back then it needed a revolution in educational practice across all of society, while today we need a targeted approach to secure inclusion for the most disadvantaged. You cannot look to 1896 to find an appropriate education policy for today, any more than you could find the right approach to broadband delivery in policies developed back then. These are wholly different times with quite different needs.
It needs to be understood by politicians pressing the ‘free fees’ case that this case is no longer a politically progressive one. One would like to think that those arguing against tuition fees are not influenced by the undoubted fact that reintroducing them will annoy middle class voters, but that they are doing it out of genuine if misguided motives. If that is so, they should now reconsider.Explore posts in the same categories: economy, higher education, society, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.