30 October 2006

Remoulding degrees, in two easy steps









Gabriel Rozenberg, a former president of OUCA*, writes in today's Times in defence of the present system of student finance, i.e. loans rather than grants. He opines that

Just because education is a right doesn’t mean that it has to be free: it means that it has to be affordable. As long as no one is being shut out of education because they cannot afford it, society is doing its duty.
Rozenberg suggests the state should get out of higher education altogether, and leave things to the market, allowing competition between universities for students who would pay their own way and look for value for money.

This is all very well, but it misses a key point. There are areas where forcibly exposing things to market forces makes things better for individuals, and there are areas where it makes things worse. Going to full marketisation of university degrees may be unavoidable by now, but let's not get carried away and regard it as the best of all possible worlds. There used to be some point in having free degrees for the cleverest, regardless of circumstances.

If the state artificially expands higher education so that half the population does it, then finds it has to abolish subsidies which it can’t afford, no one should be surprised. But for young people of high intelligence - those for whom university was originally intended – it’s clearly not the same being forced to borrow money, or to get their parents to pay, compared to being fully subsidised.

It’s a symptom of mediocracy that we move from (1) regarding it as unfair if only a minority benefit, to (2) extending the benefit to all, to (3) having to abolish the benefit altogether because it isn't affordable on that scale. Two easy steps from a system in which a degree is worth doing, to one in which it isn't. To suggest that we should revert to degrees for a minority would, of course, be beyond the pale.

* Oxford University Conservative Association