University tuition fees, and private schools

Here’s what the government is currently saying about the change in university fees:

  1. Allowing universities to charge students anywhere between £6000 to £9000 will create competition, leading to better value and higher quality education.
  2. These fees – which can’t be paid upfront – shouldn’t be considered like normal kinds of debt since they don’t need repaying until you earn £21k, and the rate of repayment for most people will be lower than it is now, plus an awful lot of students will never repay their fees.

In an apparent surprise to the government, most universities are charging the maximum £9000, which was expected for the likes of Oxbridge but not for non-redbrick universities. What’s happened is that practically all universities have decided to signal quality through high prices, meaning that no-one wants to lower their fees and make their degrees look cheap and nasty. It also doesn’t help that due to other government spending cuts, fees of around £7500 are required just to maintain current funding levels.

But maybe students will rebel and demand for lower fees at ‘worse’ universities? I think not*, precisely because the government will – eventually – convince students that going to university is a good thing and that the up-to-£27k fees they’ll pay aren’t ‘real’ debt; in which case, it really doesn’t matter how much a degree costs, since you’ll never have to pay it back if you don’t get a high salary – and if you do, a few grand here or there is hardly going to make a difference. So much for a market for universities.

*Unless there was real competition for university-like entities that were much cheaper, say £3k a year, and demonstrably more effective. But unfortunately it’s not easy to set up new universities, so that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

Another mantra of the government is that despite raising fees to £9k a year, they’re still worth paying because graduates earn so much more over their lifetimes. There’s no doubt that historically, graduates have earned £100k more than non-graduates over their lifetimes, but there’s clearly no guarantee this will continue. As any investment ad will say, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.

And when you consider that:

  • Far more people are earning degrees
  • There are more and more ways for smart people to earn money and have a fulfilling job without university (just look at the proliferation of startup-founder dropouts these days)
  • The skills and knowledge that many, if not most, graduates pick up are not, in fact, terribly useful in actually performing a job (which wasn’t a problem back when a degree was a sign of smarts/background, but no longer)

then I don’t believe that all grads will continue to have such an edge on non-grads, certainly not to the degree they used to. Yes, university is meant to be more than a job training service, but unfortunately that is how a lot of people justify it; it’s not as if the government is suggesting that students pay £27k in order to become better and more enlightened citizens.

On Private Schools

The Guardian reported today that six private schools are in line to become ‘free schools’ from September, and spun this is being largely a bad thing:

Their bids are controversial, not least because if they are successful, parents who had opted to pay school fees for their children’s education will suddenly find themselves gifted it by the government.

Around 7% of children in the UK are at fee-paying schools, with an average spend per pupil that’s significantly higher than what state school pupils receive. If you look at Mumsnet, then you’ll see plenty of complaining about having to ‘pay twice’ to educate children privately (first in taxes to state schools, and then to the private school) so it’s easy to understand why some parents are pretty pleased that they’re saving money.

I can also why other parents might be unhappy that these previously privately-educated pupils are now being ‘gifted’ education for free; in the short term, it could easily cause a shift in resources to previously-private schools, hurting state schools. But of course, private schools that become free schools can’t be anywhere near as selective about their intake, which ought to help everyone.

In the long run, I don’t think it’s healthy to have a society where hundreds of thousands of people can effectively opt out of state education. Whether it’s transport or housing or healthcare, when you have the rich segment of the population simply walling themselves off from everyone else, it’ll only result in resentment and bitterness on both sides; the rich unhappy about paying taxes for benefits they don’t use, and everyone else envious of their unreachable status. Just look at America.

Better to create education systems that everyone wants to send their kids to. Canada, which beats the pants off the UK in the PISA ranking, has a far lower proportion of kids going to fee-paying schools. It can be done.


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