The other SNP pickle: universities

I reckon this could be the issue that brings down the curtain on the SNP’s honeymoon period. They seem to have messed up a bit when it comes to universities, on two different issues.

Firstly, the universities say they are disappointed in the amount of funding they will get. The universities asked for £168 million extra and said that a minimum of £40 million extra was required for levels of funding to remain the same in real terms. What they actually got was £30 million — a real terms cut.

I have never been to any universities except for Edinburgh, so I couldn’t say how it compares to other institutions around the world. But I can’t help but wonder if the continued public funding of universities in this manner is unsustainable.

There is already a perception that Edinburgh University is increasing the number of international students it enrols. International students are the only students they can make money out of, so Scottish students will begin to be squeezed out.

It already disadvantages us in at least one high-profile way. The move to semesterisation has been seen as an attempt to attract international students who want to be back home for Christmas — but had a range of negative consequences for other students (additionally, that document doesn’t mention the fact that sometimes there can be just a few days between your last lecture and your first exam in December).

If it is true that Scottish universities are facing a real terms cut in funding, then this trend will continue. Then Scottish students will be worse off.

The other place where the SNP is feeling the heat is over their ditched plans to “dump student debt”. If you were a student, it was difficult to avoid the SNP’s ‘debt monster’ character. A number of blogs were even decorated with graphics of the creature. It was clearly a key policy in attracting student votes. So it’s hardly a surprise that a lot of students feel a bit miffed now.

I can hardly blame the SNP for not implementing this policy, which in my view (speaking as someone with £7,000 and counting to pay back to the Student Loans Company) was stark raving bonkers. They shouldn’t have promised it in the first place.

Both of these areas link into the fact that students have it far too easy. Proponents of free higher education miss the point of higher education. A degree is supposed to be a signal to employers that you are talented. For this signal to work, a degree has to be costly to attain.

After all, if it was easy to get a degree, any old fool could get one. This would lead to the ‘devaluation’ of degrees that people so often talk about. The point of making a degree costly is to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. If getting a degree pays off for someone who is not so smart, then degrees are no longer a useful indicator to employers and everyone is worse off as a result.

Of course, degrees are costly anyway. Not in a monetary sense, but in a time sense. Theoretically, examinations are (hopefully) hard enough to deter the not-so-smart from spending four years of their life studying, and the opportunity costs that entails (i.e. four years spent unable to work full time).

However, it doesn’t quite work like that. When people are growing up, nobody is told the truth about university. Parents always push you into going into university due to pride. They don’t want their several years and piles of money invested in a life to come to nothing. Schools are the same — if a lot of a school’s pupils go to university, it reflects well on a school’s reputation. Meanwhile, governments like to encourage people to go to university because it reflects well on their reputation and it helps keep a lid on unemployment figures.

For this reason, there are many students who are walking around like headless chickens, not knowing what to do next (I would include myself in this group). So many people are forced by societal pressure into going into university. A lot of people grow up knowing having been told by parents, schools and governments that they will go into university. These people simply don’t consider any other alternative. Then when they are about to graduate they are stumped.

The obsession with persuading young people to go to university has also led to the fetishisation of “student culture”. Thanks to this, those four years are not seen as a cost at all. They are seen as the best four years of your life. Four years spent getting drunk. The degree is seen as a nice bonus. Fair enough if people want to enjoy themselves — but this is at the expense of taxpayers’ money.

How do we know that degrees are not costly enough? Because some graduates — mostly male arts students (who? me?!) — end up earning less than people who do not go to university. (This is part of the reason why this issue angers me a bit. If I knew I had to pay, I would have been forced to think through my choices a bit more, and would probably have made a better decision.)

Before statists and socialists start moaning, let me point this out. If degrees are costly, this need not preclude poor people from getting one. For one thing, poor people are the very people who benefit the most from university education, so they have the biggest incentive to invest in it.

Also, I still think it would be unfair to make poor people pay upfront. I would not be averse to the introduction of university tuition fees as long as they did not involve up-front monetary costs. Instead, the money ought to be paid after graduation (or drop-out) in line with your ability to pay. This is how student loans work, so I don’t see how it couldn’t work with tuition fees.

Besides, any pretence that free higher education helps poor people would soon be shattered if you spent five minutes on a university campus. Students are overwhelmingly middle class anyway. Instead of helping the poor, public funding of university education hinders the poor. It takes working people’s tax money and ploughs it into the pockets of middle class Tarquin and his Classics degree.

This is not necessarily to say that I am completely opposed to any state involvement in higher education. I would understand if there were a clear need to provide an incentive for people to attend university (although surely the prospect of a highly-paid job ought to be enough incentive). But today, 52% of 18–30 year olds either have a higher education qualification or are currently studying for one. There is hardly a shortage of graduates, or people wanting to graduate.


  1. I think Edinburgh Uni is a bad place to make any kind of judgement on the class stratification of higher education. It’s like going into KFC and deducing that everyone in the world likes fried chicken. I do not like fried chicken. Or people called Tarquin. Or Ugg boots. Or Edinburgh Uni, come to that.

    What would you have studied if you had had to pay £20,000 to do it? Would you really have made a different decision at the time of your life? You’ve changed a lot in that time, remember.

    (Also, you do know you have a relatively small debt as things stand? I’m way above you and a year behind, so some of us really will be paying dearly!)

  2. As regards social class and university, I don’t think it’s really in doubt that the majority of higher education students are middle class. Here are some figures:

    Fewer than one in five young people from the lower social class groups (IIIm, IV and V) participate in HE, and although this proportion has been increasing, it remains well below the 45 per cent who participate from the higher social class groups (IIIn, II and I), a figure which has also been increasing rapidly over the years. Lower social class groups represent 28 per cent of the total entrants to full-time undergraduate study, a lower share than their 39 per cent in the UK population as a whole. In particular institutions and subjects, the proportion of HE students from lower social class groups can range from as low as 10 per cent to above 40 per cent.

    I am quite sure that free university education is effectively a subsidy for the rich.

    If I had to pay, I’m quite sure I’d have thought a lot harder about it. My thought process was that I had to get a degree, but I didn’t know what in — but as long as I do something I’m interested in it should be okay. So I chose politics because I was interested in that. Economics was an accident. I only took it at school in sixth year because there wasn’t an Advanced Higher maths class that year at school. So I had no long term plan to study Economics and Politics. It really was chosen on a whim and now I regret not thinking it through with a long term plan.

    My point about debt is that it is in my self interest for the SNP to write it off. But I still think it would be madness for them to do it. I’m quite lucky that I’m not personally concerned about debt. While my debt might not be as high as others, I have incurred other kinds of costs (time spent travelling, money spent travelling above the reimbursement limit, living away from Edinburgh and being further away from help if I need it). But if the SNP dumped student debt I would be £7,000 better off for no reason.

  3. A degree is supposed to be a signal to employers that you are talented. For this signal to work, a degree has to be costly to attain.

    Costly in effort, surely, in hours studied but not in terms of money.

  4. I’d say both. Then, the only people who would sign up would be the ones who would genuinely benefit from university education. It’s called an “investment”.

    Under the current system, too many people go to uni without having thought it through fully, doing a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree, or just to have fun for a few years at the taxpayer’s expense.

  5. Sadly the addition of a higher price on education doesn’t actually add “value” as you’d hope to it. The bottom line is that the amounts of money talked about for higher fees cannot be raised by most people of that age, so generally speaking if fees are jacked up very far, only those from rich backgrounds will be able to afford their education.

    This is not a matter of the student paying, it’s a matter of their family paying for them. It’s bad enough at present where many have to work jobs that seriously disrupt their studies in order to afford them because their background affords them no “free ride” through this section of their life (for what it’s worth, that’s the situation I was in), whereas many others don’t. Those who come from a rich background are afforded a considerably better educational experience. If fees rise with top-up and the like, without a balancing rise in support infrastructure, those who come from a rich background will be the only ones who get an educational experience at all.

    On the politics side, of course it should come as no surprise that the SNP didn’t meet their pledge. They don’t appear to have any intention of meeting any of their pledges, choosing instead to blame Westminster for not sending them a blank cheque signed – in the large – by the English taxpayer.

  6. It should be noted that I do think that this needs to be balanced out. You can’t just fund universities unlimited amounts of money, and you can’t give all students a free ride. But keeping debt at a level that people can reasonably be expected to pay back while allowing anyone with the will to carry through access is just something that needs to happen.

  7. I’m really not convinced that my suggested system would dissuade people from studying unless they were rich. In my suggested system nobody has to pay a penny until they have left university. They pay for tuition fees after they have left university, in line with their ability to pay (as is the case with student loans currently).

    When taking the decision whether or not to study, what matters is the difference between what you expect to earn in your lifetime if you go to university and what you expect to earn in your lifetime if you don’t. But we know that this difference is larger for people who come from poor backgrounds than it is for rich people. So poor people have more to gain from attending university.

    Under the current system, a rich person can attend university even if the difference between the two incomes is lower than it would be for the average poor person, lower than the cost of tuition fees or even slightly negative (this negative value would be in effect the price the person is willing to pay to have a laugh for a few years). Poor people cannot afford to behave like this. As such, in effect, universal free university education acts as a cushion for the rich, not as a helping hand for the poor. If those rich people who had a very low or slightly negative difference knew they had to pay for their tuition, they would probably give it a miss, thereby freeing up a position for somebody who would genuinely benefit from university education.

    I know that there is uncertainty in such decisions that may deter a poor person from attending university when there are tuition fees. But I think having people pay in line with their ability to pay would give people enough breathing space if things did not go to plan.

  8. “although surely the prospect of a highly-paid job ought to be enough incentive”
    With an increase in number of students – 52%!! – the prospect of a highly-paid job surely recedes. The (British) Government is either playing a con trick here or hasn’t thought it through. The more graduates there are, the less premium a degree will attract by way of subsequent salary. Poor people will have even less of an incentive to get a degree.

    Isn’t education an investment by society in the talents of its young people? If they benefit greatly from this monetarily in later life it ought to be given back (taken back by the state through the tax system?) – as should any large monetary benefit that people accrue through making it good in the environment the state has enabled.

    (There is also an argument that the state’s investment should be recouped from those who benefited by them remaining in the country for a length of time to contribute to the system via taxation.)

  9. With an increase in number of students – 52%!! – the prospect of a highly-paid job surely recedes. The (British) Government is either playing a con trick here or hasn’t thought it through. The more graduates there are, the less premium a degree will attract by way of subsequent salary. Poor people will have even less of an incentive to get a degree.

    Yes, that was the point I was making. Under my suggested system, these wrongs are undone. If people are made to personally pay for the education they receive, wasters don’t bother, degrees become valuable and the prospect of getting a highly-paid job increases again.

    Isn’t education an investment by society in the talents of its young people?

    Under the current system, it doesn’t work like that. As I have pointed out, it is a subsidy that lets rich people enjoy themselves for a few years. Society doesn’t need to invest in the talents of its young people. If it will work for society, it will only be if it will work for the individuals in that society. As such, the individual investments would maximise the benefits that accrue to society. Under the current system, society sometimes ‘invests’ in people who will be worse off if they go through university than if they don’t. Therefore society is overall worse off. (This is unless you think there is an innate benefit to society from funding university education per se, but this seems like quite a costly way of getting a warm glow, particularly since it appears to hurt the poor the most.)

    If they benefit greatly from this monetarily in later life it ought to be given back (taken back by the state through the tax system?)

    Seems like quite a bureaucratic, roundabout way of going about it, particularly since there is only a tenuous link between income and university attendance (in the sense that there are lots of other factors that can affect your income).

  10. I was being deliberately opaque.
    My point is really that if people benefit from a university education then some of the “investment” can be taken back via direct taxation once they hit the higher tax bracket (many will not.) That surely wouldn’t disadvantage poor people who may not otherwise reach that bracket but who may possibly gain overall.
    Also any non-graduates in the higher tax bracket (s?) ought to be able to afford that tax “loss” to their income. After all basic rate tax payers have to get by on lower pay, don’t they?

  11. You ignore the fact that people often go to university with the partial intention of using it as an opportunity to network and to make interesting friends. They take advantage of the extra-curricular activities on offer to them to develop themselves and their interests as well as their relationships.