Understanding the objectives of higher education
Readers of this blog will know that I support the idea of student contributions to the cost of their university or college degree programmes. I support this for a variety of reasons: (a) because the state (and I mean pretty much any state) chronically under-funds higher education, and in a developed knowledge society a cut-price education system undermines most of the necessary economic and social goals; (b) because whatever way you try to run it, the already advantaged habitually secure all of the access they want before those with fewer inherited advantages get a look in, and therefore an entirely publicly funded system that doesn’t specifically focus on and pay for equity of access can operate as a tax on disadvantage; and (c) because higher education qualifications confer a selective benefit on some members of society, and it is not unreasonable that they should contribute to the costs (unless you really want a higher education system that is universal, i.e. one that everyone is required to participate in).
Nevertheless, higher education is not primarily a financial transaction, and having a system of fees or contributions that does not reinforce the benefits that we as a society want to see achieved is also wrong. Before we can with any conviction say that a particular way of funding universities is right, we need to be clear about what it is that we want these universities to do. So, I am actually in agreement with those who, in recent protests, have been saying that a system of fees that essentially turn universities into a somewhat grander version of grind schools would be perverse. The purpose of a fee is not to turn a degree programme into a private service for the ‘purchaser’, but rather to recognise the appropriateness of a contribution to an economic and social good, which in this instance also confers a recognisable personal benefit. This can only be achieved appropriately if the fee is a contribution to cost rather than a payment for a service. And this in turn suggests that the taxpayer, who shares in the benefit of the educational outputs, also make a contribution.
Furthermore, it is my view that the contribution of both – student and taxpayer – should be seen as a funding mechanism rather than a payment; by which I mean that the contribution of the student in particular should be a contribution to the educational enterprise rather than the specific programme – it is a contribution to overheads rather than the purchase of a product. Therefore, it would in my view be wrong to have differential fees depending on the degree programme chosen. This is important also because some of the most expensive programmes provide particular benefits to society, sometimes without providing higher salary benefits to graduates, and so it would be perverse to discourage students from taking them by requiring higher payments. But equally, allowing public money to support only some degree programmes turns the others – those not funded by the taxpayer – into private benefits in which we declare there is no public interest; this is a bizarre idea, since if there were such private-interest-only programmes they should have no place in a university at all.
Funding higher education is not just about making the sums add up; it is about striking the right balance between utilitarian objectives and the imperative to support knowledge, discovery, civilisation, culture, fairness and prosperity. We have, in my view, travelled some way in the right direction when we recognise that higher education cannot simply be treated as a universal benefit; but we will go all wrong if we think that it is just about paying for some people’s career progression. If we want to have a proper funding framework for higher education, then we had better understand why we would want to fund it at all.
Right now higher education in this part of the word is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and worryingly it is not just financial bankruptcy.