Voucher confusion

According to a news report in this morning’s Higher Education Supplement, the head of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Trevor Gale, believes that vouchers may concentrate educational disadvantage:

Professor Gale argued notice should be taken of schools research from the UK regarding choice. “When the rule that students had to attend the local comprehensives was lifted, students from lower SES didn’t have the mobility or resources to exercise the choice,” he said.

“It suggests when you introduce market choice imperatives into the policy agenda you increase the concentration of disadvantaged groups in some schools and make it hard for students to access most elite schools. I think we will see more disadvantaged students represented in newer universities and less in the Group of Eight.”

There is an obvious mistake here, though one which highlights that vouchers in higher education are less radical than vouchers in school education. While in schools systems it is common for both demand and supply to be regulated (ie the state tells parents where to send their kids to school and controls the school), in higher education supply has been regulated but not demand. Prospective university students can apply anywhere they like. Indeed, the effects of a voucher system will not be obvious to applicants for public universities (prices would drop at private providers, so the change would be noticed there).

So any relative unwillingness of low SES students to travel is already built into the current applications system and won’t be changed by a voucher system.

Of course I would like to see proof that this unwillingness exists for higher education. The kids who have survived unfavourable social circumstances and the public school system, and have reached the point that they are candidates for university entry, are likely to be very different to the parents who are too lazy or incompetent to find their child a decent school.