Higher education investment and the role of the state

A few days ago several thousand people took to the streets of London to protest against higher education cuts, tuition fees and student debt. The protestors carried placards and heard speeches that called for free higher education, the end of student debt and progressive taxation. It is unlikely that their cocktail of complaints and demands will be taken on board, at least in its entirety, by any political party seriously aiming for government in Westminster, but it is clear also that there is a fair amount of unrest in student circles in England. But in targeting tuition fees above all else, the protestors may be addressing the wrong priority.

It may be worth saying that the argument for ‘free’ higher education (which is of course not really free, but rather consists of tuition funded by the taxpayer) is not without its difficulties. The financial burden of university studies is not felt evenly by all sections of the population. Students with access to significant private resources will not necessarily be troubled much by tuition fees; but disadvantaged students will always be affected by general living and material expenses even where tuition is free. In other words, wealthier students will notice relatively little difference between having tuition fees and having none, while disadvantaged students will find it challenging to afford even ‘free’ higher education. This is one of the reasons why universal free tuition does not, contrary to what its advocates often assume, necessarily draw poorer students into higher education.

A much more significant factor in the social (and indeed economic) impact of higher education is state investment. Many European countries have tuition fees, though on the whole these are low by English standards. However, such fees supplement (rather than replace) state investment, so that the latter can be effectively targeted at genuine need, whether this is institutional (investment) needs or personal student needs. It is arguable that American universities achieved global prominence once the US government realised that higher education investment would generate massive economic benefits; and now US disinvestment is coming at a time when we can discern a gradual slippage by American universities in global rankings, while aggressive investment by China and others is allowing their institutions to advance. The perfect model of higher education funding is serious public investment, accompanied by affordable tuition fees and targeted support for poorer students.

Some countries seem to have lost a mature understanding of what the state’s role is in higher education funding. This needs to be recovered.

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6 Comments on “Higher education investment and the role of the state”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    I could not agree more with today’s post and with the analysis regarding tuition fees (not to mention the dangers of HE policies acquiring some totemic status and ending up written, *literally*, in stone).
    It might be useful to delve deeper into the roots of what is identified as an immature “understanding of the state’s role in higher education funding” in some countries, and this is due to how the state (and the idea of the *public*) is increasingly portrayed.
    In the words of economist Mariana Mazzucato “The standard narrative about government in the US is that it stifles innovation, whereas the truth is that it enables innovation at a depth that business cannot reach, and the entire society, including business, gains as a result. “We have to change the way we think about the state.”
    Mazzucato is the author of “The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths” (2013) positively reviewed by FT (!) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/32ba9b92-efd4-11e2-a237-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3K4k95gvo
    An excellent read for any policy maker, particularly one with education portfolio responsibilities!

  2. Treasa Lynch Says:

    I don’t think starting with the issue of funding is even the question; in my view, there seems to be some lack of clarity on what the benefits of education to society are and should be. This is issue is not unique to third level education in the UK (or elsewhere, let’s be honest) but hampers development in second level education. My view is no one really knows what they want from an education system and no one even really wants to have the discussion. LInk that to a culture which appears to know the cost of things but not the value, and you wind up with a society that tries to pay as little as possible and concentrate on short term costs rather than long term values. If you look at education and research as a long term investment rather than a short term asset, it is likely you will also look at the financing somewhat differently. However, it seems to me that most research needs to have a short term measurable ROI profit motive for it to get financed and education needs to be quantifiable in terms of money as much as anything else. I cannot help feeling that this lack of vision and clarity beyond “as much money in in the short term for as little out in the short term as possible” will result in problems many years down the line.

  3. Iain Biggs Says:

    It interests me that Holland has massively invested in its universities – and more specifically that Groningen University is aware that the future of HE lies with its ability to justify that investment by providing something resembling what Felix Guattari might have called an ‘ecosophical’ education in which the complexities of the modern world are addressed by a ‘post-disciplinary’ approach. To ignore the economic dimension of HE is always problematic, but the endless reduction of educational and research issues to the kind of reductive economic realpolitik imposed by the current Government is a large part of what is preventing the UK from recognising that universities in some European countries are not only investing in HE, but in a very different type of HE. This is signalled by Groningen validating an undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts and Science, which it sees as a necessary step towards preventing universities becoming increasingly archaic institutions in which, in the last analysis, the self-interest of powerful groups of senior academics and academic managers consistently outweighs any concern for the socio-environmental realities with which we’re now faced.

  4. V.H Says:

    I believe the system in England is better for poorer students than that available in Ireland.
    While fees in Ireland may be theoretically free and the availability of a grant, it in no way covers the costs.
    To put it simply. If a Finglas kid gets a place at TCD, the cost of the bus ticket in and home would obliterate the grant. And this would be living at home. If they were attending outside of the adjacent area it’s mindbogglingly unrealistic. The same kid in England can borrow a realistic amount to cover living expenses. And yes they will have to repay but isn’t it better that such a problem exists than not.

  5. E Du C Says:

    The resources argument on its own falls flat as it’s also about value for money. Witness Ireland during the Celtic Tiger boom where academic productivity was low and academics were generally overpaid. The more honest ones admit that the 33% cut in salaries they endured during the bust was necessary and wise as they were previously overpaid. Those that lament the universities’ drop in rankings think it’s all about lower resources when in fact it’s largely a result of Asia etc. making great leaps forward and TCD/UCD falling behind because of inefficient work practices and complacency. The last thing the beleagured tax payer/students should do is give Irish universities more money until they get their act together.
    So where should the extra resources go- reducing class sizes, allowing academics to do less teaching and more research, or on shiny buildings? Views differ markedly on this issue. My own belief is that resources should only flow where there is tangible evidence that students and society are actually benefiting from their expenditure, not vanity arguments about league tables. Whether research is taxpayer funded or not, does most of it really have that much impact? And aren’t universities great at defending inefficient work practices?


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