Feminist Philosophers

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Import of the Browne recommendations October 31, 2010

Filed under: funding for higher education — Jender @ 10:13 am

Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). The single most radical recommendation in the report, by quite a long way, is the almost complete withdrawal of the present annual block grant that government makes to universities to underwrite their teaching, currently around £3.9 billion. This is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.

For more, go here.

 

9 Responses to “Import of the Browne recommendations”

  1. James Says:

    I really like this recommendation, although I have to admit I do not know a whole lot about the issue.

    I believe that underwriting teaching in this way has likely contributed substantially to the ballooning administrative costs at universities.

    Moreover, I guarantee that it hasn’t improved the quality of teaching; subsidizing education puts pressure on universities to increase supply to meet the increase in demand. How do you increase supply? By hiring more sessional instructors, and packing more students into classrooms, especially in humanities and social sciences.

    My only worry is that of equal opportunity. Obviously we do not want a situation where only the rich can afford to send their children to university. Any student who possesses the ability for higher education should have access to higher education. The difficulty is in actualizing this equality of opportunity in ways that do not undermine the education itself.

  2. extendedlp Says:

    james, i don’t understand how a for-profit model escapes this ‘increasing supply’ picture you paint. why would cutting government funding avoid ‘packing more students into classrooms’–unless the cut would mean less demand on account of many students not being able to afford to go to uni…?

  3. James Says:

    Well I don’t think a for-profit model would attempt a policy of ‘higher education for all’. It is government that constantly proclaims a need for higher education.

    It is wrong for fully competant people to miss out on university education because they can’t afford it. Governments all over the world have attempted to rectify this injustice by making university education more affordable, and have subsidized the university system and even instituted price controls. Essentially, the market for higher education cannot function at high rates of enrollment, because the more people want to go to school, the more universities will charge to fill those spots. The government intervenes to bring students and universities together. By subsidizing, a government can make up the difference between students, who need a low cost of education to enroll in the desired numbers, and universities, who will have to charge more for education when education is in high demand.

    Quality of teaching goes down, at least in the short term, due to an undersupply of truly qualified professors. Quality of students goes down, because students who otherwise might have done something other than university for 4 years decide that it might now be worth their time. These students dilute the talent pool. We are left with intro courses taught by hacks and class sizes of 300, and we still call it university.

    Why wouldn’t this just happen in the for-profit system? Because no student would be willing to fork over an unsibsidized tuition to sit in a class of 300 and be taught by the latest person to come through the revolving door.

    None of this means that a for-profit system is just the awesomest. All it means is that subsidization does a poor job of solving the original problem, being just access to higher education. I don’t know how best to actually tackle that problem, but I hope oneday it becomes clear that the ‘higher education for all’ policy does little to actually address it.

    BTW, if it isn’t clear by now, the for-profit model escapes the ‘increasing supply’ picture because it doesn’t artificially create an increase in supply or demand.

  4. jj Says:

    James, let me strongly recommend that your read about what’s happening here with the pro-profit ‘colleges’. See:

    http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/why-for-profit-higher-ed-is-lobbying-for-its-life/

    Your grasp of the facts seems poor to me; I’m concerned you are here as a troll. I recommend that we do not feed you.

  5. James Says:

    I am definitely not a troll.

    I stated, at the outset that “I have to admit I do not know a whole lot about the issue.” I come to all forums of discussion with a humility in my own knowledge and a respect for the knowledge of others. I mean that with sincerity.

    The point of my two posts, I think, was to argue that government subsidies for higher education will manipulate natural market equilibriums and will result in some undesireable side effects. Yes, higher education will become accessible to more people as a result of subsidization, which might address our concerns about fair access to education, but subsidies will also result in a lower quality education and a lower quality of students.

    Implicit in this argument is the idea that for-profit schools of the kind we are speaking of, Devry for example, simply would not exist without government subsidies. Like I said in the post previous, “[...] no student would be willing to fork over an unsibsidized tuition to sit in a class of 300 and be taught by the latest person to come through the revolving door.”

    It is equally unsurprising that these for profit institutions are trying to get homeless people into their programs. What did I say about the quality of students? (that is not to say that homeless people are incapable of higher education, just that they probably aren’t at a time in their lives where it would be most beneficial)

    Interestingly, the first line of the For-Profit by the numbers report, that I was linked to, supports this exact argument.

    “Many schools rely heavily on federal student aid funds. Forbes Magazine described one of the large for-profit schools as a company built to swallow federal student assistance in the way a whale gathers up plankton”

    Exactly!

    I think it is therefore wrong to impugn for-profit as a concept, (Harvard is worth $25billion, I think they have made a profit off students here and there) and it is more appropriate to go after the subsidies that bad schools thrive on. There has to be a better way to improve access to education for those who could best benefit from it.

  6. extendedlp Says:

    james, there are no 300-student classes in UK universities, and, until very recently, UK universities have been *entirely* publicly funded: that is, free to all students. currently, they are heavily funded, and students pay a small ‘top-up fee'; still there are no 300-student classes.

    i assume you don’t need to be told that UK universities have been around for a few years.

    also, you’ve been arguing that funded unis will make for poorer-quality students; now you’re saying that *for-profit* unis are drawing them in (in the form of homeless people) and that this proves your point…?

    and finally, i don’t think you’ll find *anyone* on this blog sympathetic to the assumption that economically poorer students are going to be intellectually poorer students.

  7. James Says:

    james, there are no 300-student classes in UK universities, and, until very recently, UK universities have been *entirely* publicly funded: that is, free to all students. currently, they are heavily funded, and students pay a small ‘top-up fee’; still there are no 300-student classes.

    Are there 200 student classes? Are 200 student classes acceptable?

    i assume you don’t need to be told that UK universities have been around for a few years.

    I’m not responding to that…

    also, you’ve been arguing that funded unis will make for poorer-quality students.

    More students will enroll in university because it is the thing to do, and not because they want higher education. This does happen. In fact I was in class the other day sitting behind a guy playing online poker, and he wasn’t even good at poker. This in a graduate seminar of 45 students. Big seminar I know…

    now you’re saying that *for-profit* unis are drawing them in (in the form of homeless people) and that this proves your point…?

    subsidies create an incentive for institutions to collect that subsidy, and lower tuitions for students create and incentive for prospective students to choose schooling instead of other available options. supply side and demand side, two sides of the same coin.

    and finally, i don’t think you’ll find *anyone* on this blog sympathetic to the assumption that economically poorer students are going to be intellectually poorer students.

    I never said that poor students will make bad students. In fact I have said repeatedly that the goal here should be to find a mechanism that gets all those who have the ability to get the education. The bad students I have in mind are the sons and daughters of middle class parents who are not academically oriented, could afford to go to school, but would decide against it if not for government subsidy. They decide against school because they really dont think the benefits to a non-academic like themselves justify the expense of unsubsidized education.

    I will try to restate, and make my point more clear. If our goal is just education, ie the $worth of your parents does not determine your access to education, then I don’t think a subsidy for universities is the best way to achieve that goal. A subsidy reduces the cost of education for all individuals, and as such, it will encourage the talented poor and the talentless well off to pursue higher education.

    In an ideal world, I would be for determining two factors: 1) talent 2) ability to pay. All those who meet a certain threshold would be admitted to university, and tuition rates would be adjusted according to ones ability to pay, with the well off paying substantially more than the disadvantaged, the severely disadvantaged paying nothing.

    Obviously this ideal world is impossible; there are significant obstacles to reliably determining who are the most talented among us. One might even question the premise that only the talented should get an education; we are not responsible for our natural talents and therefore we do no morally deserve the advantages of a strong intellect. Maybe justice requires instead that we educate the least talented, to even out this natural injustice. Moreover, I imagine there would be a significant and galvanized opposition to a very ‘progressive tuition’ structure, coming from the typical sources. Despite these worries, I think the onus is on proponents of government subsidy to show how subsidies can possibly hope to address the inequality in access to education. There are talented poor who are still going to forgo an education in order to take a second job, while untalented well off decide not to take that same job because school sounds like a good time.

    I am seriously not trying to provoke anything other than discussion.

  8. Monkey Says:

    I agree with some of what you say, James. But here are a couple of worries: when an institution (of any sort) operates for profit, there is a tendency for profit to become *the* central goal, and this is often in tension with other goals of the institution that should be more important. At present in the UK, there is a cap on the number of students each university can recruit, based on the number of student places the government is willing to subsidise at that university. When government subsidies end, those caps will be removed. I predict there will be increasing pressure from university management to recruit as many students as possible, to increase the university’s profit margins. This isn’t because I think university managers are all breadheads – it’s a rational strategy given that the survival of the university depends on generating cash to keep going. But I’m pretty certain there will be pressure to teach larger classes, two-year degrees, and other such horrors. One might argue that the class sizes will be kept in check by the limited number of students applying to university. But I think rather than reducing the class sizes, this will lead to a reduction in the number of academics employed to teach them.

    Second, whilst I can see the merits of the system you suggest, I think how ever high the fees are set, there will still be a group of rich people who can afford to go to uni. So there is always the possibility of the talentless/disinterested rich taking up spaces.

    (Incidentally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a lecture group of 200, providing that the class also receives small-group teaching as part of the same course.)

  9. Monkey Says:

    I’m not particularly arguing in favour of the current system, either. I think the British education system needs a massive overhaul. Although I don’t have any particularly sensible ideas about what needs to happen.


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