Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Bleating

I'm not going to trawl through the entire Browne report, or even the Coalition's proposals for funding higher education. Apart from anything else, given the state of the higher education sector as it is and the increasingly causalized part of its labour force I am in, I haven't got time. What I will say is that Stefan Collini appears to be talking shit in the LRB of the 4th of November. Collini attacks the Browne proposals as a marketization of higher education which, by encouraging students to pick degrees on economic grounds, will destroy higher education as a public good. Public goods are goods whose benefits are non-excludable and non-rivalrous, that is, goods where if one person has them, everyone has them, and where there is no dimunition in benefit from extra people possessing them. Such goods are notoriously under-provided by the market.

One of the reasons this happens is because people are unwilling to pay the cost of something they know other people are also going to benefit from - or at least they are when they think about it in homo economicus terms. Public subsidy avoids this problem by spreading the cost more evenly across the population who benefit rather than expecting some sucker to pay for everyone. So Collini would then be on strong grounds if he could show that the Browne report proposed reducing public subsidy to higher education to the extent that students started making choices about whether to go to university and what to study that where not conducive towards the production of a population with optimally high levels of higher education. This would at a minimum, presumably require investigation into current patterns of students' choices about higher education so as to form hypotheses about what differences the different structure of public subsidy that Browne proposes will result in. Collini says nothing about what motivates students and how sensitive that is to the subsequent costs of their degree. Unless Collini can show that the Browne proposals would substantially change the behaviour of students, then his argument is basically empty bleating - especially since students already bear substantial economic costs of their studies and this doen't seem to have made any difference to their participation rates or choices about what to do.

None of that is to say that the Browne proposals aren't terrible, indeed, aren't terrible in exactly the way that Collini claims they'll be. It's to say that if you're going to make that claim, you could at least adduce some relevant evidence. A lot of the commentary on the Browne report and the government's proposals has been of this kind of standard so far as I can see. What exactly the effects on student participation is an empirical question. If you want to argue that students are in general going to behave differently if they have to pay back another £18,000 over the course of their working lives on top of the £9,000 or so they now have to pay back, then you need to show that there's reason to think that they will. Making them pay £9,000, initially up front, doesn't seem to have made much difference. Is £18,000 going to push them over a threshold? I don't know, but neither, so far as I can see, does Stefan Collini.