Monday, October 30, 2006

Jurassic Park IV

According to Gabriel Rozenberg's excellent comment piece in today's Times, "just because education is a right doesn’t mean that it has to be free: it means that it has to be affordable."

He points out that students should be seeking the radical position of asking to pay more for their education instead of the endless stream of rallies (for which read excuse to bunk lectures and doss off to London for a stroll and a pint), which have a curious habit of being as much about Free Palestine, Stop Bush, Ban E$$o and Read New Book By George Moonbat (apparently this is spelt Monbiot - see Freedmanslife Lexicon) as it is about getting overwhelmingly middle-class students to avoid having to pay (shock horror!) more than 25% of the cost of their university education.

Gabriel's argument is pretty simple: let universities stand on their own two feet and compete with each other, whilst students make decisions as to where to apply based on the same merit process as they choose between BHS or Primark (or in the case of many NUS marchers, Oxfam or the offcuts from Land of Leather).

The key is introducing a properly-managed system to allow students to borrow the cost of their education and pay it back at an appropriate rate as and when they can afford it (ie when that education actually starts reaping some real rewards). The Trotskyite - or is it Marxist-Leninist - hairy leather-bound body-canvases on the marches will probably never earn enough to pay back anyway, and the usually totally cynical and career-advancing NUS leadership will end up in New Labour and can always bolster their parliamentary stationery budget or borrow some money from a rich dude if they find it a struggle to cover their below-market loan capital and interest repayments.

As always, there has to be a safety-net:

"If there is still a role for state funding it is surely only in ensuring that no teenager is left behind. Universities that charge full fees would have more resources to put into scholarships for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but in the meantime the Government could build up endowments, helping universities to become the best of all worlds: fee-charging for all who can afford it, needs-blind to those who cannot."

This is expensive to fund, so I would go further than Gabriel in the liberalisation of the university market (shock, horror - commodities jargon!); the government should be incentivising private investors to make capital investments in infrastructure, and encouraging former students to make endowments to their alma mater, through some targetted tax breaks.

In fact, I wonder if there might be an even better construct that serves all purposes. If universities were properly privatised and being run efficiently as businesses, they could have a bond or rights issue to generate investment, then use some of this cash, backed by appropriate financial institutions, to act as the lending (or means-related grant-making) body to their own students.

Government could always find a means of providing last recourse, or truly let the market run its course, even if some venerable institutions go under for not being competitive. Universities would also have a natural incentive to increase their R&D capabilities with commercial goals in mind, at a time when the UK is beginning to lag behind its OECD counterparts on this front.

Either way, thanks to Gabriel - a chip off two old blocks. You can write to him here to voice your support for reason, although rumour has it he might be an occasional Freedmanslife reader. Incidentally I might make a future TWAJ posting on why UJS doesn't seem to really have a policy on paying fees and what on earth it is doing in NUS apart from perpetuating Jewish conspiracy theories... but that is for another day.

No comments: