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.

4 thoughts on “Voucher confusion

  1. There a few further things that bothered me about that article:
    .
    1) They are ignoring the benefits that all the probably not especially rich kids got that were able to change schools. Train/bus fares are clearly in the reach of most families, even those that are not especially rich.
    2) There is some assumption that locking good kids into bad public schools so that bad kids benefit is somehow a good thing. Thus good smart kids are forced to suffer with less than good kids through no fault of their own, even when there are simple alternatives (unless they pay for private schools). This seems to me a clear-cut case of anti-intellectualism, and more importantly, works against equity concerns for the slightly richer than poor, because it is much cheaper to pay transport fares to go to a cheap but good public school than a private school. It no doubt works against the good but poor kids getting into university also — since their performance will be dragged down by the not so good kids they are forced to study with.
    3) Point (2) is made worse because as studies now suggest, at least in Australia, one of the effects of zoning restrictions around good schools is to push up real-estate prices. Thus stopping kids travelling works against equity concerns in that respect also, since their parents won’t be able to afford to buy a house in the good school district in any case.
    4) Using the word “entitlement” seems to suggest people are entitled to a university education at someone else’s expense, but that’s clearly debatable. This seems all too Orwellian to me.

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  2. Could this issues for secondary education be partiallly solved by allowing school vouchers to be used for transport expenses, within reason? Potentially you could also offer low income students an extra allowance if they go to a distant school (although that would distort people towards extra travel).

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  3. Robert – NSW has a free public transport system for schools, which my CIS colleague Jennifer Buckingham defended from funding cuts on choice grounds. I wasn’t convinced by this argument – Victoria charges much more for student public transport than NSW and has more kids in private schools.

    The main problem Trevor Gale is pointing to is less that parents can’t afford transport than that they are insufficiently engaged with their children’s education to bother finding out how good their school is. While obviously it would be far better if they (or someone competent) was engaged with determining the child’s best interests, market mechanisms don’t need all consumers to be engaged to be effective. Even modest sales declines would cause most enterprises to be seriously concerned about what was going wrong.

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  4. Robert – If you had an allowance for travel expenses, there then doesn’t seem to be any reason for not giving a stationary allowance, etc.
    You also mentioned only giving such allowances to low-income students, which indicates that the purpose of the allowance is somehow to reduce the effects of poverty. But if that is the purpose, why tie any allowance to travel exclusively? Why not just give it in the form of cash?

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