A poor choice
by Matt Grist
David Willetts will launch his White Paper on higher education in the House of Commons this afternoon. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but I am (and Demos has long been) supportive of attempts to liberalise higher education. What we mean by this is opening up more opportunities for more students to study to degree level in a wider variety of ways. The best way to achieve such liberalisation is probably through partnerships between existing universities, FE colleges and the private sector. But there may also be a case for more private provision if it offers better value for money and oversight and regulation stop some of the more corrupt and exploitative practices we have seen in the US being imported here. Just to remind readers of why we should be agnostic about whether private provision is good or bad: in South Korea 80% of provision is private. And no-one thinks that country’s HE sector is particularly second rate.
But let’s be clear what we mean by value here – we mean higher quality for similar or lower spending levels, not lower quality for less money. The non-financial value of education for the student, not just the financial cost to the taxpayer, is important too. Ultimately these two groups’ interests coincide as students become taxpayers and the better educated they are the more they will earn and the higher tax revenues will be. Such higher revenues will likely mean levels of taxation not being pushed as high as they might be by global economic and national demographic pressures.
In this regard it is disappointing to see David Willetts recommending using price as a means for the Government to allow some institutions to grow at the expense of others. This is a strange anomaly since the minister sees student choice as the best guarantor of universities’ improving on the standard of education they offer. If anywhere student choice is needed it is to dictate whether institutions grow or shrink. For students are making choices based on price and educational standards. No-one will mind paying more for a great education, and higher-charging institutions might well be the ones to grow if student choice drove expansion. Conversely, Willetts' plan to use price (charging below £6,000 a year) as the mechanism to control growth could well spark a race to the bottom.
I am not arguing that student choice is perfect – that students have perfect information or flawless choice-making abilities. That is obviously nonsense. It is just that student choice would be a better mechanism for dictating the growth of HE institutions than the Government doling out places based on price alone.