IN RETROSPECT I shouldn’t have gone to university. Well, perhaps you should not regret the past, but the whole four year experience – including several months spent slouching about avoiding a German University – was hardly value for money.
My priorities as a student were wine, women and song. Like so many others I lacked the maturity to focus on my studies. I spent many a happy evening a decade later reading the books I skipped as a student. At the end of it all they gave me a 2:1, which I suppose has been of some use.
But I could have just got a job and learnt far more about the world of work. I would have ended up richer and more qualified four years later. I now know lots of people who did, and they combined it with the whole flatshare / pub every night / party weekends thing. It’s not as if they missed out on the ‘student experience’.
They did miss out on serious academic study of course, but then so did I. That is not to say that all students are feckless layabouts. Some have the self-discipline, even at a young age, to take their courses seriously.
But when you think about it, it’s madness to offer everyone free university education. What if the education received doesn’t result in higher output (from the student concerned) than the cost of educating him? This of course includes not just the tuition costs, but the opportunity cost of the student’s absence from the labour market.
This calculation is already implicit in the fact that higher education is rationed, even in Scotland. Only those who get the right grades at school get the freebie. But grades measure (at best) a person’s capacity to complete a degree, not whether it is a useful undertaking.
In Scotland we’re basically guessing whether courses are economically a good investment or not. Students will attend if the economic advantage outweighs the costs of doing so to them, even if the calculation is negative to society as a whole. They are also prone to reduce their own input accordingly, as I did, if they’re getting something for nothing.
Economically speaking, therefore, an effective higher education system has to be funded by fees in one form or another. That is the only way that students will choose and engage with courses that actually teach them something. On top if this, making the customer pay forces institutions to focus on quality and value for money. Fees encourage universities to offer rigorous courses that are time and money efficient. That is why postgraduate courses such as MBA’s are so much more intensive.
So the UK government is right to move to a fee-based system, and Scotland wrong to oppose it. Add to this the fact that fees allow good universities the chance to improve revenues and compete internationally, and it should be a no-brainer.
As usual, however, the Scottish Government differentiates itself from the rest of the UK for political reasons. Only this week Mike Russell compounded the measure by announcing measures to reduce the costs of studying still further. Scotland is the only part of the UK where student numbers are still rising – almost certainly a huge waste of national resources. Its excuse is social – university should be free for the poorest. But this is specious to the point of absurdity. In practice, free higher education is paid for by the poor, who usually didn’t attend but mostly still pay the taxes used to finance universities. And those who benefit are either the rich whose graduate salaries are boosted by the experience, or the feckless who took four years out at taxpayer expense.
Of course, courses need not be judged purely by graduates’ salaries. Every civilised society promotes academic study for its own sake, just as it promotes the appreciation of art, culture and science in life generally. But this can be achieved by the provision of bursaries or courses subsidised by philanthropy or even government grant as part of specific programmes.
And it’s perfectly possible for arrangements to be made to subsidise the very poorest who cannot access the finance to fund their studies, or who are daunted by the need to do so.
In England, the government has done just that. Students only start paying back their fees after graduation, and only once (if) they earn more than £21,000. Even then, the repayments are so spread out that they are actually lower than when fees were first introduced under the Blair government.
In fact the English system is so generous that in it will hardly provide any incentive at all for students to make a real assessment of whether their degree will be useful or not. The main benefit of the system is to improve the university finances.
This could offer Scotland an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage by devising a system that was equitable but also promoted student realism, and therefore a more productive university sector overall. But as so often, with Scottish politics dominated by anti-English sentiment, Scotland has flunked it.
Our universities are already complaining that they cannot compete financially. We now have the absurd situation where English students (who must pay fees here) are sought after by local institutions that badly need the income they bring! Scots students are in danger of discrimination in their own country. At the same time, public spending and taxes are both higher than they need be.
The social and economic impact of this folly is unmeasurable but severe.
Photo: Teviot Row students union, University of Edinburgh.