Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Why the Times wouldn’t pass Politics 101 in its analysis of universities v. Sure Start

A strange and wildly misguided editorial in today’s Times (‘Politics ABC’ at argues that “In the context of a looming budget deficit, Sure Start expenditure of more than £1 billion a year is exactly the kind of line item that politicians should be scrutinising, not protecting”.

It is particularly risible that the Times leader suggests that “the regrettable reality of the public finances would make this necessary …even if some [children’s] centres had not morphed into middle-class crèches from the route out of poverty that they were originally supposed to be”. Given the stranglehold on university applications held by the middle classes, turning many parts of the university system into middle-class finishing schools, this is very rich indeed.

The Times recognises that “extensive research clearly indicates the importance of investment in the early years” but goes on to argue that “the prize of greater social mobility will not be won if investment in early years comes at the expense of opportunities later in life”. Is this seriously meant to suggest that the UK university system is major vehicle of social mobility’? Clearly, the idea of ‘extensive research’ by Times leader writers doesn’t include most of the current public policy literature on higher education.

For example, in the UK, the recent Milburn report on access to the professions (, drawing on the current academic research (nationally and internationally) concludes that social class has been, and remains, “a strong determinant of participation in higher education, and this gap has not closed substantially in the last half century”. It reports that the participation rates by higher social groups (III, IV and V) have risen over 1960 – 2000 from under 30% to about 50%, while for social groups I and II the rise has been from around 5% to about 20%. The Sutton Trust report in 2007 found that 44 percent of those from the richest 20 percent of households attained a university degree compared to just 10 percent from the poorest 20 percent of homes (

In a direct test of social mobility, the OECD found that, in the UK, 50% of the economic advantage that high-earning fathers have over low-earning fathers is passed on to their sons - in Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries, by contrast, less than 20% of the wage advantage was passed on( It concluded that the chances of a young person from a less well-off family enjoying higher wages or getting a higher level of education than their parents was "relatively low".

In the US, the picture is little different – Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding ( have concluded “The US system of higher education reinforces generational patterns of income inequality and is far less oriented towards social mobility than it should be. If university education is to improve the chances for low- and middle-income children to succeed, the current system must be radically redirected”.

And what are we to make of the figures cited by the Times leader, that “Britain is now at or above the OECD average for spending on pre-school and school-age children, but below the OECD average for spending on tertiary education”. Given that higher education mainly provides the finishing touches to a cruelly skewed system, ensuring the reinforcement of the advantages already conferred upon children by accidents of birth into the right income and social class, why should public spending on the tertiary education of well-off young people be regarded as a priority? This would only make sense, if the argument were that we should expand public spending in order to give zero and low university tuition fees to a wider group of young people from families with low incomes, along with significant subsistence grants to compensate them for not earning for three years (never mind not contributing wages to families that badly need it).

However, even this argument, while at least logical, is questionable. Surely it is the continuing system of low tuition fees to young people who come from better-off families (i.e. the majority of university students) which “is exactly the kind of line item that politicians should be scrutinising, not protecting”, to use the Times leader’s own phrase? Up to recently, there has been a lot of mumbling that the tuition fees being charged by universities, and the consequent debts being amassed by students, would eventually choke off the demand for higher education. This argument is certainly not open to the writers of the Times leader, given that they are starting from the ‘shocking’ premise that more than a quarter of a million university applicants may be denied a place this year. It seems that young people (or, more accurately, their parents) see the long term economic and social payoffs from a university education as well worth the (relatively minor) investment they have to make.

I do not want to argue that those who can’t get a university place this year are not being disadvantaged – in public policy, any initiative which is promoted for good reasons (like Sure Start) crowds out other initiatives which could have significant net advantages, as some forms of university expansion in the UK would surely have. It’s a matter of priorities, as all politics must be.

However, I do want to argue that our concern for those not getting a university place this year should lead us to different conclusion from those reached by the Times leader writers. From the point of view of the applicants themselves, we should recognise that most of them, if they have the required grades, will get into university a year or two later – this is the normal pattern every year. Nor is it an unambiguously bad thing that they have to wait a year longer – indeed, there are good arguments that we are allowing far too many young people into university at too young an age, without the experience or maturity to make best use of their university experience. It is also interesting that many young people in Europe now choose to study in other countries, either because they want the international experience (and we should seriously ask why such a low proportion of British students takes this route) or because they cannot pursue their chosen course in a university in their own country. (It is now common, for example, for young German students who want to study medicine but cannot get a place in a German university to enrol in courses in Hungary or elsewhere – and those who do well can then transfer later back into the German system to take the places of those who fall by the wayside in those courses). Of course, it may cost more to study abroad (although this is often not the case, given the relatively high cost of living in the UK) – but for the majority of this ‘blocked’ quarter of a million, their application to universities across the UK already suggests they are willing to pay the necessary costs. The Times leader writers seem to see this quarter of a million students as locked into the UK university system. This is a symptom of how narrow and restricted is the conventional view of the role and potential of higher education in this country.

For policy makers, the implications of this argument are quite radical. The current university funding system is failing dramatically to achieve the social mobility which is often claimed to be one of its most important purposes. It is time to institute a serious of policies which will actually make it more likely that this key purpose is achieved in the future (see, including:

• no more tax breaks for private universities (or the private schools which dominate admissions to the UK’s top universities);
• free choice of state universities for all students with the right entry qualifications, with lotteries where universities are oversubscribed;
• attractive bursaries for all students whose parental income means they do not have to pay student fees, so that more low income students are attracted to university;
• an end to the wholly artificial division between full-time and part-time higher education, particularly in relation to its funding and student support mechanisms;
• a radical extension of degree study opportunities within further education, so that talented individuals have access to degree qualifications, where their study programmes merit it;
• two-year exemption from national insurance contributions (by both employers and employees) for the top 10% of every degree class in the UK, whatever sector they are employed in
• a guarantee for the top 5% of performers in every degree class in the UK that they can enter a two-year training programme in the public sector, so that entry into the public sector is on merit.

In passing, I do not want to argue that Sure Start has had an unambiguously ‘green light’ from its various evaluations – although they have highlighted a mainly favourable picture. Nor am I arguing that it is enough, by itself, to focus on children at the start of their lives - the Sutton Trust report in 2007 (( pointed out that children from poor households who are in the brightest group at the age of three slip back in developmental tests by the age of five, and are likely to be overtaken by those from affluent backgrounds by seven. However, this is an argument for continuing to experiment and improve Sure Start, and other early years programmes, not cut them back.

In sum, the argument in the Times leader today that funding of the university system should be increased at the expense of Sure Start in order to promote social mobility is not only logical nonsense, it is arrant hypocrisy – it betrays an underlying desire for Middle (and Rich) England to continue to hijack public expenditure for its own purposes, under the guise of ‘making the most of the younger generation’. Perhaps we should not be surprised to see such arguments in a Times leader?

I think it is safe to assume that the wholly unconvincing Politics ABC which appeals to Times leader writers will be seen through by those who have done Politics 101 at the universities they seek to advantage. Let us hope it also seen through by the majority voters (voters whose children and grandchildren have gone to or are likely to go university still make up well under a half of the population) and by politicians. For the moment, let us be thankful for small mercies – it would have been worse if these fatuous arguments had appeared in the Daily Mail, a newspaper to which politicians actually pay some attention.

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