Monday, October 18, 2010

A contradiction in government funding policy on education: politics on the cheap?

Substantial government funding cuts will be announced later this week in a Comprehensive Spending Review, although some details are now known in advance. I will focus here on education developments.

The good news is that schools will be protected from cuts.

The bad news is that universities will face cuts of about £4.2 billion (a cut of 79%).

Why the differences? It is argued that university graduates should pay for their education because they are the primary beneficiaries of it. They enjoy higher income earnings and, thus, they should be expected to contribute more to the full costs of their education.

(Of course, there are many flaws in this argument. Higher income also means higher taxes: thus, graduates might be thought to already be contributing something back through paying higher taxes. Plus, saying students shoudl contribute "more" to cover their costs may be fine, but the coalition proposals actually entail students paying largely the full costs of their degrees. If others benefit as well (such as the wider society from the skills possessed), then why should society contribute nothing?)

There is another way in which schools and universities are not different. Let's turn this on its head. We could easily argue that school students are the primary beneficiaries of their education and, thus, those who receive schooling should pay for it.

Here is the rub: if the Government believes university students should pay the full costs of their education and not the taxpayer because university students are the primary (even if not the only) beneficiaries, then the Government should also argue that school students (or their parents) should pay the full costs of their education and not the taxpayer because school students are the primary (even if not the only) beneficiaries. 

It makes no more sense for the Government to argue that taxpayers should not contribute much, if anything, to support universities they may not be attending than it does, on the contrary, to argue that taxpayers (and especially childless taxpayers) should contribute significantly, if not fully fund, schools that they may not or will not attend.

Why say one thing about universities, but argue another about schools? The answer is simple: it's about politics on the cheap. Extending the argument used on universities to schools will only lead to an even larger public protest than the growing unrest on proposed higher university fees. Plus, major cuts in university funding is an easy way to reach proposed 25% cuts across ministries.

Readers will know that -- of course! -- I believe there should be greater public investment in schools and universities. I am pleased to find schools ringfenced from cuts, but not the arguments used to justify this at the expense of universities.

Political expediancy trumps consistency every time, not least here.


Ben said...

Good point. Perhaps it could be made even more strongly when you add in consideration of schemes such as the EMA. Here children are actually paid to stay on in school, even though they are the main beneficiary. Yet, when it comes to university, they are expected to pay out, simply because they are (supposedly) the main beneficiaries.

The Brooks Blog said...

As always, many thanks for your comments, Ben. I am glad my argument made some sense and - as usual - you highlight an even better case with EMA. There is then a clear contradiction in the government's position on who should pay and who is benefitting.

I suspect it is more of politics on the cheap. Roll out one argument over there claiming one thing and then another over here claiming something else. Their combined goal is simply to reduce costs, but to make it sound principled.

It is high time we reveal the emperor's new clothing for what it well and truly is...

Ben said...

Actually, I guess I stand corrected because from what I gather they're scrapping EMA too.

On the other hand though, I just read about this: