This article is more than 8 years old

The left is lost on higher education

Emran Mian argues that the left is offering no constructive alternative to the government's market-led agenda in HE, and thus have very little of use to add to the debate.
This article is more than 8 years old

Emran was formerly Director of the Social Market Foundation, and a member of Wonkhe's Editorial Group.

I was the civil servant who led the independent review of higher education funding in 2009, the precursor to fees shooting up to £9,000 a year. I received many detailed and searching criticisms of our proposals inside government. By contrast, the critique from Labour and the broader left was beside the point. Now, four years after the introduction of much higher fees, and on the publication of a new White Paper for universities, nothing much has changed.

There are two basic errors in how much of the left thinks about higher education; two muddles; and a big gap where its proper scrutiny of the government’s plans ought to be.

The first error is that the left has never got to grips with how fees work. They believe that students now bear the whole cost of higher education whereas in fact it is graduates who pay through the equivalent of a tax. Those who study high cost courses like lab-based science subjects receive a big chunk of public funding, and almost everyone gets some public contribution towards the cost of their course. This is up to 100% for those graduates who never go on to earn above £21,000 per year.

The most obvious proof that the left has failed to grasp these straightforward descriptions of the system is the policy on fees that Labour took into the 2015 general election. Ed Miliband professed that the long-term aim was a graduate tax – presumably so that high-income graduates would pay even more for higher education – while in the short-term avowing that a Labour Government would drop fees to £6,000 a year. In practice, dropping fees like this would mean that middle-class graduates pay less than they would otherwise. Miliband’s policy was the promise of a future tax rise combined with an immediate tax cut. Make sense of that if you can.

Liam Byrne, then Labour’s higher education spokesperson, did at least try. In the light of worsening forecasts for the cost of student loans, he argued for a reduction in fees on the basis of making the system more sustainable. But the government has found a different solution to that problem – freezing the repayment threshold and updating its assumption about the long run cost of government borrowing. These measures taken together reduce the impact of student loans for the public finances, so much so that the government is now gradually extending student finance to postgraduate students and some part-time ones.

The second error that the left makes is to oppose on instinct the expansion of higher education. The latest version of this is to be scornful about the government’s aim to certify more providers of higher education. Yet Labour in government also sought to expand the number of providers, most recently through the University Challenge initiative that I also worked on in 2007. One of the objectives of that scheme was to create higher education provision in parts of the country where there wasn’t enough. Those gaps still exist. Equally, expansion will typically benefit students from more disadvantaged backgrounds who may, due to persistent inequalities in school outcomes, have fewer opportunities to enter established universities. We need to change that too – and the government agrees – but opposing expansion in higher education per se is to protect incumbents in the sector at the cost of diminishing the potential opportunities available for students. There’s nothing egalitarian about that.

Then there are the muddles, criticisms too murky in their aims to even be called errors. The first of these is that the government is turning higher education into a market. To the left, plainly that’s a bad thing, and we don’t even need to say why. But what does it mean for higher education to be a market? Students choose universities and universities choose them; that much is clear. By necessity, there are choices and contracts. But I don’t think many on the left want to forcibly allocate students to courses and universities, regardless of their own decisions. Nor do they want to place students under the control of universities – giving them some rights is the decent thing to do.

The left might argue that such rights could be more like those of citizens than consumers. Take the point that far and I can understand it, but then citizens should have plenty of information about the communities they are citizens of, and a say in what happens inside their community. The government’s White Paper can easily be read as giving students these very rights. Arguably the government’s view doesn’t differ so much from the NUS conception of a partnership between students and institutions. At the very least, there is the basis for a constructive dialogue. But instead of joining such a dialogue the instinct of many on the left is to deploy the bogey terms ‘market’ and ‘consumer’ and never clarify what it is they object to in detail.

The other dimension of this magical thinking is university autonomy. There’s plenty of talk on the left about universities now being subject to the vicissitudes of the market. They are no longer free sites of knowledge because they are under the discipline of the market. Yet this criticism is informed by amnesia. Before fees became the leading source of funding for universities, most of the funding was allocated by the government. The government set the amount of funding for every course – in other words, determined to a large extent the model for teaching – and capped the number of students that each university could recruit. Those controls have gone or are diminishing in the new system envisaged by the current government.

It’s a common view on the left to assume that a government bureaucracy will always give truer expression to the public good than members of the public making choices for themselves, but the unlikeliness of that claim is particularly pronounced in higher education where universities are more autonomous now (in the so-called market) than they were in the bosom of the state.

By now I must sound like an apologist for the present government. But there are real issues about the White Paper proposals: the Teaching Excellence Framework runs the risk of further bureaucratising university departments. It may also drive a wedge between some students and their teachers, replacing the sense of a common endeavour with abstract metrics. The system for regulating new providers of higher education needs to show a high level of vigilance. And the potential for fees to vary in the future will revive a long-postponed controversy.

Proper scrutiny of what the government is proposing on issues like these is necessary. In the context of the government’s small parliamentary majority, it is also likely to yield results. But for the moment the left is poorly equipped to manage the task. On the topic of higher education it is muddled and lost.


6 responses to “The left is lost on higher education

  1. This is the closest wonkhedev.jynk.netes to clickbait and I love it!

    Seriously though the idea that the well worn and rehearsed critiques of pricing up programmes in a market are bogey and lack detail is a bit cheeky.

    There are of course those who don’t believe in any kind of graduate contribution at all, but there are others who would accept a graduate contribution if it wasn’t linked to the price of a course in a market.

    There are obvious differences between a “flat” contribution (with some exemptions) like the TV license or prescriptions, a “cost price of the product” contribution, and a “pay some of the benefit” contribution (ie income tax)

    The problems with having a contribution in the “cost price of the product” space are hardly poorly defined- prestige, use value, benefit, risk, information all feature in several critiques.

    NUS didn’t do a bad job of summarising some of them back in 2008:

  2. As Jim says, nice bit of clickbait, but like all clikcbait it’s bizzare nature hides pernicious nonsense…

    Moving past the simple odd notion that those oppising recent government reform of HE are the nebulous ‘left’,

    It’s not the left that misses that fees are a tax, it’s the students and their families. Indeed, the very nature of the reforms that Mian help design have codified a concept that fees are upfront. This scentence: “They believe that students now bear the whole cost of higher education whereas in fact it is graduates who pay through the equivalent of a tax” is both true, but also describing the wrong constituency. The “They” is students, not the ‘left’. The most obvious proof of this, is the vast number of students who argue that they are ‘paying’ for their degrees.

    “… the promise of a future tax rise combined with an immediate tax cut. Make sense of that if you can.” It’s what sensible governments do at a times and high youth unemployment and growing income gaps.

    “But the government has found a different solution to that problem – freezing the repayment threshold and updating its assumption about the long run cost of government borrowing. These measures taken together reduce the impact of student loans for the public finances” So, a more sustainable model is to update guesstimates? That’s what we should rely on? Make sense of that if you can.

    “opposing expansion in higher education per se” but, who argues this? It’s a straw man.

    “But instead of joining such a dialogue the instinct of many on the left is to deploy the bogey terms ‘market’ and ‘consumer’ and never clarify what it is they object to in detail”. Emran Mian, do you mean characters of ‘the left’; such as the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University?:

    “Before fees became the leading source of funding for universities, most of the funding was allocated by the government” yet, before the reforms you helped design, the government never cut funding for entire subject areas, at a national level.

    “It’s a common view on the left to assume that a government bureaucracy will always give truer expression to the public good than members of the public making choices for themselves” is this well worn generalisation of the right really coming from the director of a thinktank in favour of EU memebership, that grand project of devolution of power to the public?

  3. I think, Emran, that you will find that neither of these were the arguments made in NUS’ robust critique of the fees-loans-debt market model that he has for so long advocated, despite all the evidence showing that the market in higher education has failed in achieving any of the things that its advocates hold so dear (raising quality, increasing diversity of product, price competition, more accurate information for students). NUS’ Roadmap for Free Education gave a strong critique of marketisation on the basis of the model’s failure to improve higher education as well as its ability to ruin public finances and save less money than the previous system (or indeed a grad tax).

    In reality, you are referring to a particular group on the “left”. This is the same group who think it reasonable to call for universal grants when the reality is that it would mean wealthy kids getting a free ride. I’d hate for you to regress into a reductionist “blob” model of the left, because the arguments that I hear from most leftists and progressives with less blind faith in the market is very much what NUS have been saying over the past two years, and the argument is a strong one. I would greatly enjoy reading a clever and robust defense of marketisation than Blairite caricatures of the “left”, because once these reforms kick in, you’re going to need one more than ever.

    I have some sympathy for the argument that the loan system is in some way progressive and that the repayment structure is much like progressive taxation. The system is basically a sort of insurance-based distributive model which is ambition sensitive but fairly endowment-insensitive; even more so now with the removal of grants. I don’t like this sort of insurance-based model because it fails to tackle the massive social inequalities that students are endowed with when they start university, and universities aren’t all that good in mitigating against them for when they leave.

    But distributive justice aside, the left-wing case against the current system is less about cost and more about price. There is something fundamentally destructive about turning education into a commodity. The price tag has been both the catalyst of unhealthy competitive forces where institutions cut corners and spend money on gimmicks instead of frontline services, and it has been the key to reducing a student’s role to that of a passive consumer, when they should be active in creating and sharing their learning experience.

    You see, the inherent problem with this sort of Third Way modernisation stance, and the reason why Blairism, with all its good intentions, achieved less than it should in education, is that it treats the market is something inherently neutral and as a mechanism that can be employed for the social good. The evidence from 30 years of public sector reform, of job market liberalisation, of privatisation, is that it’s just not very good at doing the things that reformers want it to do. And don’t think that means I want us to turn back the clock, or to create some unwieldy bureaucracy to centrally plan everything – that’s just another unhelpful stereotype of the left. Besides, the market is doing its best at creating huge bureaucracies of its own. The REF and the TEF are both critiqued from the libertarian right for being Stalinist leviathans of control. What they fail to grasp is that to create markets, the State has to impose more control, not less. Thatcher loved a good quango. The OfS and UKRI will be no different: they are the dirty engines of competition, mashing the gears of the broken system forward, hoping that Friedman is standing at the end of a glorious rainbow with an answer to this mess.

  4. It’s no accident that the Conservative-led Coalition did not have to amend any legislation introduced under a Labour Government to get us to the present situation.

    I lose the will to live, or even to respond in detail, when reading a critique that assumes that ‘left’ describes what the Labour Party does in Government. What next? The ‘revelation’ that the USSR just might have been flawed as a model socialist society? I think you’ll find that even though it was written over 50 years ago, Miliband (senior, yes, the other one) in “Parliamentary Socialism: A study in the politics of Labour” (Monthly Review Press, 1964) contributed significantly to our understanding of what governmental practice was left wing and what was not.

  5. It seems to me that with respect to student money matters all politicians act like old fashioned variety hall magicians. What ever the colour of their capes, red, blue, yellow….they all deliver surrounded by with smoke and mirrors strategically placed

    I am not convinced that any politician doesn’t understand the system.What I believe is they devise, like all good magicians, ways to deliver the same old trick with a different spin. Some of their audience are wily “seen it all before” types looking out from the start for the sleight of hand,distractions and not in the least bit impressed by the showmanship. Others in the crowd do know it’s not what meets the eye but just can help fall for that pesky double dealing. Some in the audience will take it all on face value and depending on how they feel about the illusion will applaud, reel back in horror, or tremble in fear, In fact some may avoid the show all together having heard just how scary it all sounds.

    So when Ed Miliband was shouting “roll up, roll up watch me slice a £9K fee to £6K by laying it in my magic box” some folk may have fallen for the trick.This will have included those who never quite grasped the “see this fee loan and this HEFCE grant – I put it in this envelope – give it a shake pass to the student – open it up – the fees haven’t changed really – Ta da!”. Those who saw how the envelope trick worked shared their insight so by the time Ed came up with his £6K smoke and mirrors version the audience was not that impressed, he seemed like nothing better than a one trick childrens party magician.

    Before Ed though came Nick Clegg with a very naughty trick indeed.

    Nick was disgruntled at playing glamorous assistant when he reckoned he had all the skills of a master magician. He had promised audiences he would be the next David Blain of tuition fees but never made it only to sitting pretty, yet muted at David Cameron shoulder. To appease him he was allowed to play a little and came up with a Chad Valley magic kit, a cash sweetener for the half time interval called the National Scholarship Programme (NSP). Nick sent the box of tricks to the universities who received it with a bored sigh. Some read the instructions, others less so. Some delivered the trick with aplomb making sure some audience members received their promised incentive. Other Unis though saw a way to be even more tricky, pocketing the audience watches while they were reaching eagerly for a fee waiver golden ticket. Imagine the students disappointment to later to find the ticket was nearly worthless and the uni had banked their cash prize.

    Anyway like a lot of these tricks the NSP was just a flash in the pan.

    What students and their families need are Penn and Teller type politicians who are prepared to let them in on how its actually done. To be fair audiences are all the more impressed in the full knowledge. Creativity isn’t stifled ,new and more effective ways to deliver the trick are still explored and devised – but without the smoke, the mirrors, the watch stealing and the vain glorious – pull the wool over your eyes – showmanship.

    The audience are ultimately happy to be in on the act.

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