Arguing the higher education case

As the argument around tuition fees and higher education funding has got hotter over recent weeks, it has not necessarily become more sophisticated. I fear there is a feeling right now in some circles that the volume of the shouting is more important than the compelling nature of the case being made. As readers of this blog know, I do not believe that ‘free’ higher education is feasible any longer, but I accept readily enough that a good case can be made for it, when properly advanced. All too often however the arguments put forward are rather weak.

An example of this is an article published this week in Times Higher Education. The piece in question was written by a journalism lecturer, Kate Smith of Edinburgh Napier University. It considers the position of Scotland in the context of the current debate there about higher education funding, and it ends with what the author probably considered a rather pleasing flourish, as follows:

‘The wealth of a country is not measured by the gold held in reserve, its strength not by its weapons of mass destruction. Richness and enlightenment comes from the education and character of a people. Universal access to university education is imperative to avoid what Scrooge called “the shadows of what may be”. The Scots are showing this is not just a fairy tale; they are leading the way.’

In fact, there is no logical connection between the somewhat over-the-top rhetoric of the first two sentences and the conclusion that then follows. Nobody whom I have heard in this debate would argue against the value of education. But it does not follow in any way that higher education as a universal benefit is more effective, notwithstanding the out-of-context misquoting of Dickens. A case can be made for universal free access, but it needs to be explained, not just asserted.

Universal benefits provide effective coverage but are very expensive, and the cost is aggravated by the fact that money will be directed at least in part to those who do not need it, so that those who do need it may end up getting less than they should. When in addition the state has declining resources this impact is aggravated.

As a society, we are now at a phase of development where we are going to have to make some difficult choices about higher education. Part of this will be about deciding how important we think it is to have a system that is demonstrably excellent and of a quality that will compete with the best elsewhere. Part of it will be about deciding whether free access for the wealthy is of itself an important principle that will trump all other considerations. Or, if we feel that universality is inviolable, it will be about deciding how we can raise the resources.

I accept that a perfectly good argument can be made for universally free access to higher education. But it is not the case that this is an easy argument or that it could be applied without difficulty. In order for it to be persuasive, those advancing it have to be much more articulate in recognising the problems and suggesting solutions.  Writing about a return to Dickensian conditions, as Kate Smith does in the Times Higher article, is simply silly and gets the debate nowhere.

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11 Comments on “Arguing the higher education case”

  1. Al Says:

    Fees as currently presented are not the problem facing academia in the long run.
    If the actual costs were determined and charged there would be a drastic drop in student numbers?
    What would be the political imperative be then?
    To fund the student or keep the buildings open?
    Subtle but important distinction…

  2. Vincent Says:

    I feel that the biggest problem in all this is that no one is being honest.
    If one asks how much does it take to fully run a University on these islands for a year. There isn’t a person that’ll give you a total which will match anyone else. It should be simple. Money in, money out. But no, we have a labyrinthine finance system that even the Daedalus that designed the thing couldn’t arrive at the same total twice from the same numbers.
    You Ferdinand are looking at this from many directions, but the primary one is that of the person charged to find the cash to run the place. However, the reality is the general populous does not trust you. And I don’t mean you personally, but the University sector generally not to become exclusive like the Ivy League.
    And I honestly believe unless there is a cast-iron protections that is exactly the direction the sector will travel. It must. It’s the goal of all Universities, for like a few years ago we were property porn, the spec’s of the Ivy League institutions are the porn for the average academic.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Ferdinand, it might not be your intention but your comments could be seen to imply that the case for the high fees (i.e. the Browne report etc.) has been made satisfactorily, I just wish to stress that it could not be further from the truth, hence a degree of sophistication and sublety should be necessary for all, personally I happen to be critical of what is proposed without falling into Dickensian melodrama…radicalizing matters seldom bear fruits..


    • Anna, I am highly sceptical about much of the argument advanced by Browne, but it does amount to a case (even if one doesn’t agree with it). To succeed in putting forward an alternative agenda the arguments need to be well made. Over-blown rhetoric with almost no substantive argument won’t do the trick.

      I am a realist, and I am not expecting tuition fees to be introduced in Scotland. But we are at risk of sliding towards the very unpalatable alternative of inadequate state funding, with built-in decline for the system. State funding is not an easy answer to everything. Putting forward the suggestion that it is is a disservice to the sector.


  4. I want to limit my comment to just one aspect. You are returning to your old point and again accusing others of failing to argue. The problem with your opposition to “free fees” is that you avoid stating the approx. income of those who will pay. Very likely no one will disagree with you if you say that adequate funding or even significantly better funding can be achieved by having the rich pay fees. However, if you define “rich” at too high a level, there will be little income and if you set a desirable income target, many, many people who could hardly be described as rich will have to pay.

    Many ill-informed, wishful or even dishonest arguments advanced in these tough days use the “the-rich-will-pay” myth. I cross swords regularly on this with leftists with whom I usually agree. While I believe that something must be done to address the grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality in Ireland, I realise too that there is no “rich people’s pot of gold” which if grabbed, would solve problems.


    • Colum, I actually agree with you that the ‘rich-will-pay’ argument isn’t the answer to all our problems. But that’s not my argument. I am not suggesting (as those with whom you cross swords) that the rich should pay for everyone else, and that once you force them to do that all will be hunky dory. But I am suggesting that they should pay for themselves. Your answer to that, I think, is that they should do that through taxation rather than fees. My answer is that such taxation income will generally not make it to higher education.

      The point as to who is and isn’t ‘rich’ is a secondary one, and is only worth addressing once we have decided the issue of principle.


      • Ah no! That won’t do at all. The device of obtaining agreement in principle makes sense only when there is confidence that the negotiations which must follow can be seen to be relatively straightforward. That’s not the case here because,as I say just above, “if you define “rich” at too high a level, there will be little income and if you set a desirable income target, many, many people who could hardly be described as rich will have to pay.” This IS the issue.

        Now, you say that you are asking the rich only to pay for themselves and not subsidise others. This makes no difference. You still have the problem of defining rich; set it high and its not worth doing, set it low and poor people are drawn in.

        When I say “not worth doing”, I mean in terms of money raised. In terms of decreasing the advantages of obscene levels of inequality of income, it makes no sense to pick only on the rich with kids at college.

  5. paddy healy Says:

    Push to increase teaching load
    Madam, – Your Education Correspondent, Seán Flynn (Home News, December 29th) referred to a message I sent to colleagues in institutes of technology recently. He also quoted Prof Von Prondzynski, who is not from our sector, as saying that holidays in institutes of technology were “hard to defend”. In addition, Mr Flynn refers to a current annual workload of 560 hours per year. The Department of Education is attempting to enforce an annual teaching load of a minimum of 560 hours per year in addition to the additional hour per week stipulated in the Croke Park deal. Workload is a different matter.

    The workload of lecturers at third level involves both teaching and scholarship. Scholarship includes inter alia research, creative writing and maintenance of world-class practical skills in a rapidly changing world.

    Some commentators take no account of the number of post- graduate students supervised, the amount of research and scholarship carried out, the number of publications produced, the weight of course direction and co-ordination undertaken, or the course reviews completed (not to mention lecture preparation and task correction).

    Under the Croke Park deal the management side is demanding that the teaching load be increased to 20 plus one hours per week for lecturers and 22 plus one hours for assistant lecturers. A survey commissioned by TUI some years ago concluded that the current 16/18 hour lecturing load was equivalent to a 50-54 hour working week of teaching and related duties alone. It is extremely difficult to conduct the degree of scholarship appropriate to a third-level institution in the context of such a teaching load.

    Currently many lecturers struggle on with scholarly activity during term time and then put on a big push during the holidays. Any agreement to reduce the vacation period would lead to an extension of teaching into the holiday period by the authorities.

    The attempt by institutes and Government to reduce vacation periods in addition to imposing the biggest teaching load in Western Europe on lecturing staff cannot fail to damage the institutes and literally make the adequate performance of full academic duties impossible.

    It is clear that government wishes to effectively reduce the institutes to teaching-only institutions.

    The development of institutes of technology has been a hugely successful initiative in Irish education. Could the Government that oversaw the destruction of the banks be allowed to seriously damage third-level education also? – Yours, etc,

    PADDY HEALY,
    Griffith Court,
    Fairview,
    Dublin 3.


  6. [...] is that the increase in tuition fees agreed by the Coalition in December 2010 is going to result in students looking very closely at what they get for their money. And employability is likely to be right up there alongside quality of teaching as being one of the [...]


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