Home > Economic policy > Realistic utopianism for 20-year olds (cross post from Crooked Timber)

Realistic utopianism for 20-year olds (cross post from Crooked Timber)

December 17th, 2010

Looking at the debate over UK protests over the tripling of tuition fees, it seems to me that this is an occasion where realistic utopianism (I’m paraphrasing Erik Olin Wright here) is needed, and is currently in short supply. The present ways in which modern societies determine the life choices available to 20 year olds are unsatisfactory and inequitable, and the British system is (or seems from a distance) to be more inequitable than many, perhaps most. So, defending that system against change, even change that will make things worse, is difficult and problematic. Rather than ask what incremental reforms might make things better, it seems like a good idea to ask how we might design a set of institutions from scratch, and then think about the implications for existing systems.

My starting point is that, in a modern society and economy, nearly everyone needs to finish high school and the great majority need further education (academic, professional/technical or vocational) beyond that, if they are to thrive and prosper. So, rather than thinking about universities as the destination of a select few, and then about various second-best alternatives for others, we should be starting from the view of post-secondary education as a universal service like school education or health services. That does not mean that everyone should get the same post-secondary education (any more than everyone should get the same health services), but it does mean a presumption that everyone should have access to educational resources of similar quality.

That’s radically different from a system where historically-determined differences in endowments and funding drive massive inequality in resources which in turn produce and perpetuate inequality in outcomes. This inequality is most evident in the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge graduates among the elite[1], but it is replicated all the way down the higher education hierarchy.

Producing a universal system would entail a substantial shift in resources over a long period towards social groups and regions that have been poorly served in the past. It would I think (though there are plenty of cultural subtleties here to which I’m not attuned) ultimately imply an end to the presumption that university is somewhere you go away to, and its replacement with a presumption that high-quality education at all levels is something that should be available wherever you live.

If we have a universal or near-universal system, it’s natural to start on the basis of funding through the tax system. Things aren’t quite so easy in the more realistic case where a majority get post-school education, but a minority do not. Here, there are various options for avoiding the inequitable outcome where the minority (probably poorer on average) pay for benefits they don’t receive. One is the set of ideas that have been canvassed in the current debate, including graduate taxes, income-contingent loans and so on.

The alternative is some version of the proposal put forward by Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman in the US a while back of making a universal grant, available to everyone at age 20. I’m inclined to a somewhat more paternalistic view than their suggestion of a no-strings grant (partly from considerations of political realism, to which utopians should pay attention, I think). I’d prefer to limit the use of the grant to a range of purposes that are likely to yield life benefits (education, buying a house, starting a small business) and, until it was used, invest it and give the beneficiaries the proceeds every year.

As in all my attempts along this line, the point is not so much to specify the policy-wonk details as to press the need for a renewed transformative vision on the left.

fn1. The UK system is notable, like the US (Ivy League) and France (Grandes Ecoles) for the existence of a set of elite institutions serving a tiny fraction of the population. Other systems (for example Australia’s) have a hierarchy, but without this top level. I’m not well-informed enough to say which pattern prevails elsewhere, but Wikipedia suggests that Germany may be trying to replace a relatively egalitarian system with one more focused on excellence. I hope German and other non-Anglo readers can give some better information.

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  1. Alice
    December 20th, 2010 at 00:00 | #1

    @Fran Barlow
    It doesnt help your arguments to bat with insults Fran – of the sort in your post at 46 addressed to Charles (“?receptive literacy problems).

    If you cant keep a level head, at least try to keep a level temper.

  2. jquiggin
    December 20th, 2010 at 05:35 | #2

    I’m not going to go back through the comments leading to Alice’s above, but I request that Alice, Fran and anyone who wants to debate with them should cool down and take anything further on this to the sandpit.

  3. S.
    December 20th, 2010 at 18:49 | #3

    As an American 20-something-year-old who goes to an Ivy League school and who spent a year abroad at a grande ecole, I find your interpretation to be insightful, but I do see that there are a few missing pieces.

    I am not knowledgeable on the state of secondary education in the UK, so I cannot speak to that aspect. I will say, however, that it is clear that the U.S. does need to heavily improve on that front, and I find that the sort of patchwork of programs around the country seem to be working, even though each has a different approach (Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC, charter schools in Philly, magnet schools in Chicago, etc.). But there definitely is still a lot that needs to be done in other parts of the country (particularly in rural areas and inner cities).

    I just think that the key component to this analysis that you did not mention is culture. I find it almost impossible to compare the countries that you discuss without fully considering the cultural context within which they exist and how their histories and structure play a significant role.

    While, yes, the U.S. has a mini-elite system, our university system is completely different from a place like France or the UK and I find it hard to even try to compare them. For one, France’s “elite group” is EXTREMELY limited. There are only so many grandes ecoles and the spaces in them are insanely limited. The type of education you receive at those schools versus the public educational system is completely different, with the public school systems being exceptionally inferior. Sciences Po is still open when there is a strike (of which there are many in France), public institutions are far from having the same standard. Also, the fact that EVERYONE has a public degree makes it hard for candidates to stand out, making it a lot easier for grandes ecoles kids to get jobs. Their degrees also do not mean the same thing.

    The U.S., on the other hand, has a plethora of schools to choose from where you can still get a great education. I think what you said is a bit misguided in comparing the Ivy League to something like the grandes ecoles or Oxbridge. In the U.S., you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school in order to get a good education because there are a TON of other public and private institutions that can provide an equally good education, and depending on the discipline, they might even be significantly better! Perhaps this has to do with the way the U.S. system encourages competition between schools and there are many other ways that universities are able to receive their funding besides the state. I also think that because universities in the U.S. are heavy on research (something I did not find in France at all), it attracts talent, helps build a brand, and attracts great scholars to the institute. Also, alumni relations (a source of funding and a way to get a job post-graduation) is HUGE in the U.S., whereas it seems to be almost non-existent in Europe. This is not something that is limited to Ivy League schools, and most people agree that having an Ivy League degree only gets your foot in the door, it doesn’t necessarily land you a job. A lot of people from different schools will tell you that opportunities are still out there and it’s true.

    I also must note that while there should be more students entering college in the U.S., the U.S. is still light-years ahead of the places you mentioned because of an increased attention on diverse applicant pools (diversity as determined by several factors including things like socio-economic status, gender, race, sexuality, etc.). This allows a lot of qualified candidates who would have otherwise not been able to pay for school to have the opportunity and not drown in debt. Grandes Ecoles like Sciences-Po in Paris are beginning to implement limited versions of these systems too. But you’re right to assert that secondary schools need to be better so we wouldn’t even have the issue in the first place.

    These are things that work in the U.S. (although they still need some perfecting), but it does not make sense to assume that the way in which all three places you mention operate the same way. Perhaps a more narrow approach in analyzing the UK problem would give a better picture of a solution. And taking in to consideration the way the system is and finding what works might also be helpful.

  4. gerard
    December 20th, 2010 at 21:48 | #4

    What’s actually discouraging poorer kids from going to uni is not so much the cost of the degree per se, but the cost of living while they are studying. Not all parents are able or willing to accomodate their kids for the university years, centrelink barely pays enough to afford imitation gruel, let alone rental costs, which have pretty much quadrupled over the past decade – for kids who need to pay for rent and food, university demands full-time work in the casual exploitation sector. Even if university were free, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference without Austudy actually paying something approaching living costs.

    But onto HECS…

    Even if a rich parent could afford to pay their kids’ fees, if they had sense they would still take the HECS debt. The terms of the debt are so much better than any other money they could borrow commercially. Taking advantage of HECS would free their money up for other investments that could cover the cost of HECS repayments.

    Nevertheless a lot of “rich” kids don’t have a HECS debt – their parents pay for it up front – and there are two main advantages (thank Howard) for doing so; they not only get a substantial discount for paying up-front, but they also get into their preferred programs with lower entry requirements. Didn’t get that OP you wanted? No problem, just get mum and dad to cough up the $$$.

    The argument for the introduction of firstly HECS, then up-front fees, as well as all the fee-increases that have happened since then, have been along the lines of…

    “since university is a rich people’s thang, it ought to be expensive, otherwise the rich are being subsidized by everyone else”.

    What crap. It’s like saying “because entry to university is currently inequitable (being poor makes it less likely that you’ll get in), it should therefore be made more inequitable (by making it more expensive, and easier to get in if you are rich)”.

    A few facts shouldn’t be forgotten of course

    1) about half of the overall cost for undergrad degrees is still covered by the government (compare what international and domestic students pay) – should fees be doubled to stop “rich kids being subsidized by the taxpayer”?

    2) the number of parents rich enough to pay for their kids university education upfront represents a pretty small proportion of the university population, so the whole “rich kids being subsidized by the taxpayer” is bogus anyway.

    3) it’s not the 70s anymore, and these days there aren’t many decent full-time jobs for people with only high-school education. Tertiary education is not, in fact, a really a mark of class privilege. In many cases you need a degree of some sort to get any sort of job that isn’t utterly menial, even if the degree teaches you jack and has nothing to do with your work.

    For people from relatively poor backgrounds tertiary education is pretty much a necessity for moving up in the world. It’s not a bourgeois luxury. In this day and age a Bachelors degree isn’t a mark of distinction, it is pretty much a minimum requirement for a job that will let you earn enough for the bank to be willing lend you enough to buy even the cheapest possible house.

    HR recruitment tend to know nothing about the jobs that they hire people for, and they look for markers such as degrees from big-name universities. The big-name universities know that they have a monopoly on printing the certificates that HR demands to see at job interviews, and take advantage of this to extract the maximum rent possible, charging big-bucks for these pieces of paper while cutting costs on actual teaching and research, while focusing ever more of their resources on branding and marketing.

    (This is taken to the extreme in the market for international students, where someone can pay $40K and get a Masters degree from a Go8 university without actually knowing anything or even having high-school level English).

    But, more importantly…

    how stupid is the education system all together?

    Why 12 years of free education? Who decided on this magic number of 12?

    Why not 15? Why not 18?

    Why begin at age six and end at age seventeen?

    Why not begin at age two – is it because two-year olds are too young to learn anything?

    Is it because one salary is enough these days and every three-year old kid has a parent to stay home and take care of them and teach them stuff?

    Is it because four year-olds are better off being looked after in groups of fifteen by a child-care worker on $14 an hour?

    OK so then your kid is finally old enough to start grade 1 and now the parents get twelve years of what is essentially six-hours daily of free childcare (with a bit of education thrown in). Because that’s what school is. Are these 12 years well spent – sticking kids in groups of 30 (grouped for no reason other than that they were born in the same year) in a room with a single, stressed-out underpaid teacher that half-the-time hates their job and doesn’t give a damn? Of course it’s different at the expensive private schools. But in the public schools, in low-income areas, the effect of the current system, which might as well be deliberate, is to actually make students hate learning, which ultimately ends up reinforcing disadvantage. You get bad marks all the time, and it’s no big deal, because that’s what’s expected of you. Of course if you’re truant you get detention, because the whole point of school is that your butt has to be there no matter how useless and boring it is to you.

    There are probably thousands of kids, in grade 11, 10 or earlier, from good schools and bad schools, who are bored STUPID and could easily get by in a Bachelors level program or some other form of tertiary education. Obviously the secondary school education system is not about educating people, it is about socialization, training young-minds to accept a lifetime of boring 9-5 work, doing what they’re told without asking why, and giving parents a place to dump their kids while they work to pay off the mortgage.

  5. gerard
    December 20th, 2010 at 22:19 | #5

    One other thing I just remembered… a few years ago, the Howard government raised the ceiling for fees that universities were allowed to charge by something like 15%.

    Of course the universities didn’t have to raise their fees all the way to the ceiling, but they all did! And I remember someone from QUT management making the interesting justification that “if we’re not as expensive as the other universities, people might think we’re not as good”.

    Now that’s competition!

  6. gerard
    December 20th, 2010 at 22:22 | #6


    a disclaimer – my HECS debt now stands something like 50K plus. My fault for doing too many degrees, I guess! Still, it is a huge incentive to emigrate after graduation (especially when combined with Australian house prices).

  7. Charlie
    December 21st, 2010 at 17:28 | #7

    Gerard, yours is one of the best and most sensible comments on HE I have ever seen, far superior to anything emanating from our self-serving academics like Gregory & Chapman (the inventors of HECS) who all enjoyed free HE. My pommie cousin recently came here to escape his UK Uni debt of £20,000, you should head in the reverse direction! Under the new UK arrangements his would be double now. And much of his debt was loans he needed to live absent parental support (father unemployed most of the time of his degree).

    More generally, if our brilliant outgoing head of Treasury had had any real grasp, he would have explained to Howard & Costello that maximising income tax receipts would be best and most equitably achieved by making all costs of HE born by parents/students tax deductible, as a recent court ruled they should be in a specific case. If companies can claim Capex and interest as deductible – as also owners of investment properties – why not parents/students as applicable? But our Ken was all too like Peter Sellers’ I’m all right Jack as yet another beneficiary of Whitlam’s free HE.

  8. Alice
    December 21st, 2010 at 19:44 | #8

    Yes Charlie – its even worse than you could possibly imagine in universities. See my most recent comment on weekend reflections. The whole thing (HE) is a bloody disgrace in this country.

  9. Russell
    December 22nd, 2010 at 12:05 | #9

    “the inequitable outcome where the minority (probably poorer on average) pay for benefits they don’t receive”

    I don’t think this is the right way to look for a new progressive ‘vision’. I choose to live in smaller than I would like accomodation, nearer to the CBD/my workplace – why should I pay for new freeways and highways for those who choose to build McMansions in the outer suburbs? I don’t have children – why should I pay for other people’s children’s education? I eat good, simple food and exercise everday and am never sick – why should I pay as much as others for our health system? etc. etc. We need to think a bit more collectively than that. I think the left should look again at income and wealth taxes – from each according to their means.

  10. Alice
    December 22nd, 2010 at 16:31 | #10

    Exactly Russell – the mindset that says “we all make our own choices – so why should I pay for someone elses choices etc??” Is a mindnumblingly selfish miserable attitude. People who live far fom the city and have to pay tolls every day often decide where they reside because they cant afford to live any closer. Thats not a choice they willingly make. That means its a not a choice at all.
    Oh just wait for the comments – “they could have chosen to work harder to earn more income and then they could have lived closer to the city” Darwin used as an excuse to kick the poor and middle down further.
    Choice, schmoice.

  11. December 23rd, 2010 at 23:03 | #11

    For what it’s worth, making tertiary education free or low cost (at point of sale) has provided Brazil with a barrier to upward mobility – because in practice it’s only open to those with an adequate secondary education, which has a more nearly market price that only the middle classes and above can afford; the middle classes would not be able to pay similarly for tertiary education, so they gain from a subsidy at that level.

    In my own view, tertiary education in Australia is now above optimal levels in the sense of providing more graduates than the economy benefits from proprtionately. That’s a different question to whether its benefits are spread equitably, but to me that only indicates that equity issues shouldn’t be driving decisions in this policy area so much as other policies to deliver equity, ones in the economy more broadly and not just ones to do with education and qualifications (qualifications that can degenerate into a credentialist race to the bottom).

  12. Alice
    December 25th, 2010 at 17:54 | #12

    Our kids are living the credentialist race to the bottom now.
    One could as easily argue that If the barrier to upward mobility arises due to the combination of a market priced seconday education combined with free tertiary, then we could also suggest that all education should be offered to all at no charge to first degree stage (primary secondary and teriary). If people want to choose to go to a private school over and above the public system offered at no charge, if they have the means, let them pay for and fund their own schools.
    Once it was thus here in Australia and taken for granted as normal.

    Those with means can even fund their own tertiary institutions with their private money if they choose but I see no reason why public funding should be directed to private schools. Its the mixing of the public with the private interests that does so much damage, not public education.

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