Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fee Fie Fo Fum. The Browne Report

It's out of scope for this blog to assess whether the recommendations of the Browne report are wise or fair. Many others will cover that beat from every angle and political view. Worth reading are Donald Clark, who explains how Browne misses the point, and Charlie Stross, who makes a good stab at putting it all into a larger historical context.

My question is will the recommendations fly, and if it does, will it make any difference to how Universities look in the 2020's and beyond.

My feeling is that they will fly, although I have never followed British politics closely so I'll confess it's only a hunch. The political arcana of Whitehall is a mystery to me. May it ever be so.

Where the UK leads, Ireland will surely follow, and others will take note. It's likely that when my daughter goes to college in 2023 (as of this month, she want to be a vet, by the way) it will be under a funding model quite like Browne proposes, which puts it top dead centre in scope for this blog.

What's driving the thinking in Browne, I believe, is that as attendance at a Tertiary institution slides up into the majority, it's starting to get simply too expensive for the state to support it. Governments have two choices. They can keep funding it publicly, let it go on up to 100% and accept that it will be largely rubbish because it's underfunded. It's very rare that a single purchaser (be it Walmart, or the State) with a broad pool of suppliers to choose from has not bled them white. It only happen when they are all playing too much golf together, or perhaps in Scandanavia. With China and India turning out graduates in increasing numbers, having a high proportion of graduates with fairly indifferent degrees isn't going to be much help. The big IT Offshorers can put 1,000 people on your project tommorow morning. You can't compete on scale.

The other choice is to walk away from directly funding the sector, underwrite it with cheap loans (the education is, after all, a public good, it's the least you can do) and hope that your world class institutions, now student debt funded, can produce graduates of such quality that England Inc. (or Ireland Inc.) will stay in business.

Will it make a difference? Years ago I worked in evaluation of public sector policy, and the experience left (or perhaps found) me cynical about the power of the state effecting real change in the near term. Government politicians like to claim credit, the opposition assigns blame, usually within 12 months of announcing the policy change, and before implementation has even begun. "Major Government initiative might have made a difference, or maybe it didn't, we aren't sure" isn't much of a newspaper headline, especially for an audience who have never heard of a counterfactual. By the time outcomes become clear, all but the hard core policy wonks have forgotten the original initiative. Even big initiatives (the GI Bill comes to mind) often just accelerate patterns of change that were ongoing anyway. That said, this shift probably is big enough to make a change at a generational scale, if the implementation isn't homeopathic, as public policy often is when the rubber hits the road.

For Universities, it's all good. Effectively deregulated, they can charge what they like, and need dance no more with bankruptcy. This will probably lead to some improvements in teaching on the ground. Alas, it will also lead to US style facilities inflation, with an ever nicer set of student facilities being built to entice and compete new entrants. After all, if you are going to go into tens of thousands of debt, what's a few pounds more. Besides, Student Age 19 isn't paying, some hypothetical adult he will grow into will pay in some dark imagined future.

Some TEI's will pull ahead, and engorged with fat fees will produce more appealing graduates. Some of  this will be due to better funding leading to better teaching, and some, alas, because by being more expensive they filter for the elites that elites like to hire.

Will it change the balance of course provision, casting history, classics and so on into the darkness and forcing those without independent means into more lucrative areas? For good or ill, I don't think so. When I worked in New Zealand, which has a student loan system, all the largest loans were for students who had trained as helicopter pilots. New Zealand needs more chopper pilots per capita than most places, but not that many. I recall one course had trained a substantial number of tourist submarine skippers. Vocational sounding, but they would have better off with a classics degree. Browne notes the importance of career guidance up front in the report, and having a PhD in a discipline I've never worked in, I couldn't agree more.

For students, the prospect of a big debt may deter many who might benefit, but I suspect most will suck in their guts, sign on the line and go. After all what's the alternative? The tills at Tesco? It will slow the growth of tertiary education, perhaps holding it at around the 50% level. The loan model means that people without means can still attend if they are prepared to bear the debt, so Universities will still function as engines of social mobility, which is a substantial part of their overall benefit to society. Big picture, the change isn't nearly as radical as it looks. The middle classes still pay, in loans now, instead of taxes.

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1 comment:

  1. Carole Leithwood in the Guardian
    says that research shows that working class students are more debt averse. Sounds right, Deflates my paragraph 8 somewhat if correct.

    Donald Clarke has a smart post (as ever) on the hazards of debt and potential fishooks: