A true education revolutionary

It is hard to imagine any Australian education minister giving a speech like this one by British Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable. Particularly for a Liberal Democrat, he sends a remarkable number of higher education sacred cows – some of the sector, some of government – to the slaughterhouse:

Sacred cow number 1: Universties should get more public funding

Cable:

no one should be under any illusion that there will be any other than deep cuts in government spending on universities.

Sacred cow number 2: Students should pay less

Cable:

they almost certainly will have to pay more

Sacred cow number 3: We should encourage more people to go to university

Cable:

I’m an economist so I think about the margin, as well as the average. The fact is that we don’t know much about the marginal costs and benefits of HE participation. ….

And there could be a law of diminishing returns in pushing more and more students through university.

Sacred cow number 4: Government should set targets for higher education participation

Cable:

The Labour Government set an ambition for 50% participation. … An input measure that tells you nothing about the quality and relevance of achievement or impact is not that useful. … We should not be setting targets, or ceilings for that matter.

Sacred cow number 5: Public universities should get preferential treatment

Cable:

..how does the system deliver better outcomes with less state funding overall? One approach is to allow the market to operate more freely.

What that means is a greater range of higher education providers. To make this work, we need to remove some big institutional barriers, like the boundaries we erect around the institutions which can, and can’t, receive public funds. This would bring more and better choice for students, and better value for money through new and potentially lower cost approaches to teaching.

Sacred cow number 6: The higher ed industry should not be disaggregated

Cable:

Good quality higher education can be delivered by institutions that don’t themselves award the qualifications that their students take. Indeed I can see real benefits for institutions that focus on providing excellent teaching, in linking themselves to established brands with global brands with global recognition when it comes to awarding degrees.

Sacred cow number 7: Research is a necessary part of university education

Cable:

what we can’t afford is a system in which everybody tries to do everything – badly and at high cost. Research funding is already highly selective, and that is right. It will become more so. But it should be no less prestigious to achieve world-class excellence or elite status in undergraduate teaching, or technical education.

Sacred cow number 8: Elitism is bad

Cable:

in a more competitive and specialised environment, elite institutions and departments will emerge. Indeed, it should be a national objective to ensure that we retain and expand our representation in the global elite alongside top US institutions.

Sacred cow number 9: No university should be allowed to fail

Cable:

it must also be a system with less protection for inefficient institutions. Government’s concern must be for the students – not for any particular institution which has failed to manage its costs.

And with threats of more:

The changes I have set out here are quite modest and incremental. I am aware that there are other more radical options.

What a pity I have to vote for one of the candidates for Melbourne and not this guy.

39 thoughts on “A true education revolutionary

  1. I said that I thought a Tory/ LibDem coalition would be good (especially since Clegg, Cable, etc are from the Market Liberal wing of the LibDems). Between this and the “YourFreedom” website I’m really impressed. It’s more movement towards freedom than we’ve seen in Australia in decades.

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  2. This sounds a little unrealistic:

    But it should be no less prestigious to achieve world-class excellence or elite status in undergraduate teaching, or technical education.

    I don’t believe that the history of telling people what they should value has been particularly successful.

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  3. I think your opening line is unnecessarily restrictive. It’s hard to imagine any Australian minister for anything giving a speech like any Liberal Democrat.

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  4. Hallelujah! The only problem I spotted is with #8 – “it should be a national objective to ensure that we retain and expand our representation in the global elite alongside top US institutions.”

    Why? He knows he doesn’t know whether there above or below the optimum number of students. Why not apply the same logic to the number of elite instititutions? How many resources spent on over-educating Oxbridgers is enough?

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  5. Andrew, you should send your CV to the Cable guy (get it?) and try to get a job on his staff. This could be your only opportunity to implement higher education as you like it.

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  6. “it must also be a system with less protection for inefficient institutions.”

    Like RMIT? Just as well for you, Sinclair, that RMIT wasn’t allowed to fail under a previous administration.

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  7. This is great to see, but he doesn’t quite go as far as you suggest on SC1 and 2. He attributes the need to cut HE spending on the fact that the UK economy has shrunk by 6% rather than on the lack of externalities from, and regressivity of, HE spending. But hey, that’s a small quibble.

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  8. The Education Revolution will begin the day that Gillard shows she has the nads to do to the AEU what her hero Hawkie did to the BLF. De-register the bastards.

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  9. Hooray!

    A small quibble is that the only reason he and his government are doing this is because HM government has completely run out of money.

    However that simply throws into relief that we here are wasting billions on a wrecked higher ed system for no other reason that it pushes the obligation to make Hard Choices away from us and onto the next generation.

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  10. Sinclair, I mean in the sense Cable means it.

    If Cable means what he says he will shut down every university in the UK except Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and Imperial College. He won’t of course.

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  11. Did he say that? I thought he said (more or less) sink or swim. I’m very confident my employer would swim in a deregulated environment.

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  12. This seems like a nasty bit of dishonesty:
    .
    “My generation had the remarkable privilege of being educated free. There was an implicit assumption that we paid for the graduate premiums in our income through higher income tax. But there was also a sense of unfairness articulated by Alan Johnson when he was Minister: why should a young postman contribute through his tax to pay for an already privileged group to avoid earning a living for three years and then emerge with higher earnings potential?”
    .
    Notice how he doesn’t address the point about paying back through income tax, but veers off into a nonsensical description of a young postman who will in fact not contribute to anyone’s higher earnings potential – higher earning graduates can pay back the cost, and more, of their education through the tax system.

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  13. Russell- unless it’s a HECS style debt then the postman IS paying for it out of his taxes.

    Higher income earners pay more tax, true, but if they are paying for their own degree why not do it directly and stop the churn?

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  14. If the British tax and welfare system is anything like Australia’s, postmen are probably not on average net taxpayers, ie they and their families would get as much or more in benefits and government services as they pay in tax. However given some overall political constraints on tax, possibly there is an opportunity cost for working class people in money that could be spent on them being spent on universities.

    While successful graduates will pay more tax, there is still a wealth transfer to them. In my book on universities I reported data from the late 1990s showing that less than half of the people paying the top tax rate (a rough approximation of those who are net taxpayers) were graduates. So the less educated high income earners were substantially paying for the education of graduates.

    While there is no case for this transfer, stopping it is not my main argument for fees – that is the microeconomic benefits of removing government from higher education maximum investment decisions.

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  15. Shem – wot Andrew said about the postman not paying for the education of wealthy graduates. As for opportunity costs for the postmen – well, they can put in something to pay for the education of the not-so-well-paid graduates (mostly in the public sector) whose services they use. Postmen also benefit from others being educated.
    .
    Andrew wrote: “So the less educated high income earners were substantially paying for the education of graduates. While there is no case for this transfer…”
    .
    Of course there’s a case – the whole left-wing case for shearing the rich of their cash and using it to benefit the community.

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  16. “I’m very confident my employer would swim in a deregulated environment.”
    .
    In some way or other. I imagine that campus next to La Trobe would get the axe, and possibly some building fire sales would occur, which I seem to remember happened last time to pay for that IT system that never worked.
    .
    It seems to me the biggest risk is to universities that are hard to get to and in places where people don’t go to university as much. VUT and La Trobe would be cactus in my books. It would of course be politically impossible to close down universities and possibly many courses in these comparatively less wealth areas.

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  17. Russell – We know that the level of higher education tuition subsidy has been cut over time; we also know that this made no difference to the number of graduates and that there was no change to their socio-economic composition. From this I conclude that the original subsidy was substantially a wealth transfer within the higher-income groups (total subsidy minus churn = wealth transfer).

    Within the logic of your own position it is hard to see why you would support this. It is not ‘shearing the rich of their cash’ or benefiting the community.

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  18. Andrew – I don’t understand what you’re written “(total subsidy minus churn = wealth transfer)”, but my point is that we should have a much more progressive income tax which would mean that rich graduates more than paid for their education – an argument Cable slid out of because he didn’t have an answer?
    .
    Some amount of ‘wealth transfer’ within higher-income groups doesn’t concern me too much, since the harm to them is negligible, and the possible benefit (perception of access to education) greater.
    .
    Shearing the rich to pay for universities would benefit the community in all the ways that having university trained people in the community has benefits for the whole community.

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  19. Conrad – more or less, yes. A lot of wastage would be boiled out of the system – across the system and not just at my employer.

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  20. ‘Churn’ takes account of the fact that graduates are paying taxes that are then paid back to them via tuition subsidies. This element cannot be counted as a wealth transfer.

    My view is that we cannot justify spending billions of dollars on ‘perception of access to education’ when there is no evidence that the money makes any difference to the underlying goal, ie actual access.

    That university education can benefit the community is in itself not a sufficient justification for public subsidy. The same thing can be said of many commercially provided services. The issue is whether the public subsidy achieves some public policy purpose would not be otherwise achieved. If so, we can then debate the level of subsidy given the possible benefits.

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  21. “My view is that we cannot justify …”

    That’s it – different worldviews about why education is not like other ‘commercially provided services’, what individuals owe to their communities etc. We’ve had the discussion before, so no point rehashing. I only wanted to point out, among all the praise for Mr Cable, what kind of mind wrote that paragraph where he raises an issue (taxes paying for education) then pretends to address it by sliding on to some furphy about postmen.
    .
    But just on that point that there is no evidence that money makes a difference to access – I think even in the small world of this blog you had comments from people who said they probably wouldn’t have made it to uni but for the fact that it became free. I’ve heard and read that many times over (maybe you have to be a certain age) so it’s a case where statistics aren’t giving a total picture, your data isn’t complete.

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  22. Russell – It’s true that up-front fees would put education out of reach for some people. But this is a cash flow problem, not a long-term affordability problem. Loans can fix it.

    Australian education history provides several interesting natural experiments where we can look at what happened before and after significant policy changes. Free education did not have the expected benefits in mid-1970s, because 1) only a small minority of working class (and a minority of people of any class) finished school; and 2) because there were already scholarships for those who did.

    The three increases in HECS – 1989, 1997 and 2005 – did not have the effects on low SES numbers that the left claimed.

    The very limited research which can compare like with like – ie low and high class people with the same Year 12 results – shows no difference in their propensity to go on to university.

    It’s true that this cannot prove that there were not any idiosyncratic reactions to policy changes, but we cannot make public policy based on idiosyncrasy or the mythology of people who went to uni in the 1970s.

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  23. Rather than providing social benefits, more and more I’ve become convinced that university study by many people actually makes society worse off. Certainly, university attendance tends to encourage a mindless soft-left rent-seeking-interventionist outlook that if anything serves to harm overall welfare. And for all the critical thinking that Arts students supposedly do, most don’t seem to exhibit much critical thinking when they open their mouths. Smarter kids go to law school, which simply imbues a more hoity toity version of left philosophy than Arts. Most vocational skills could just as easily be learned on the job or through full fee courses backed up by (non-subsidised) loans.

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  24. Andrew wrote: “Free education did not have the expected benefits in mid-1970s, because 1) only a small minority of working class (and a minority of people of any class) finished school; and 2) because there were already scholarships for those who did”
    .
    to 1) yes, but not an argument against free education, and
    2) a few scholarships, but without other money perhaps not a lot of use – I turned down a scholarship since it wasn’t enough to live on, I had to work.
    .
    Statistics might show that a certain number of people went to uni but it probably won’t show that those with money could take up their choice of course while others had to sign up for the course that allowed them to survive eg you might have wanted to do law but instead you did teaching because the Education Department paid your fees plus gave you money to live, in exchange for being ‘bonded’ to work for them for years after you graduated.

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  25. ” I had to work.”

    And indeed many people did (as they still do) combine work and study. It’s not ideal as a youth lifestyle, but another reason why the costs were rarely insurmountable for people who really wanted a degree.

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  26. My generation had the remarkable privilege of being educated free.

    You mean 5% of your generation, which wasn’t free at all. The other 95% paid for it.

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  27. AN

    As we recently discussed, both Uni. of Sydney and UNSW have dropped their graduate-entry LLB degrees, by rebranding them JDs.

    As the JD is counted as a ‘postgraduate’ degree – even though there is not a scrap of difference with the undergrad LLB – they can charge full fees to local students as well as foreign students.

    In its 1st year, the UNSW JD offered 95 CSP places and 90 full fee places. So half the class had deferred HECS (about $8,000 per year), while the other half pay full fees of $30,000 per year.

    Perversely, not only did applications to the UNSW JD triple over the previous year’s graduate-entry LLB, but the minimum and average quality of successful applicants was significantly higher!

    Though I imagine from next year, when U.Syd’s JD starts in its fabulous new law school, UNSW JD student quality will decline.

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  28. PP – Despite that common sense point, JDs ‘juris doctor’will be affected if these reforms proceed. Of course they can be confusingly renamed LLMs (mixing them up with specialised legal study) to get back within the proposed AQF framework. So far as I can see the AQF reforms are worse than a solution in search of a problem, they are a solution that will create a problem.

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  29. No. The JD has the imprimatur of US universities – whose Law degrees are called JD.

    It would be a remarkable alliance of forces who could force the closure of a graduate degree, which admits 200 to 300 students each year with UAIs well over 90, and 50% with honours, masters, and PhD degrees, 100 to 150 of whom are paying $30,000 per year, with Australia, English, and US law firms keenly recruiting.

    This is nothing like those bogus “allied health sciences” degrees, discussed in the Oz article.

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  30. PP – I can assure you that JDs are threatened as well, which was briefly mentioned in this article.

    It would require state legislation to formally stop the JDs, though a funding threat from the Commonwealth would be just as effective without actually making them illegal.

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  31. Thanks for that link. Very interesting. I just did a quick run around this “AQF” body. While I am critical of the cynicism with which the LLB has been rebranded as a “post-graduate” JD, the case for the nomenclature – Juris Doctor – is unassailable. There is a difference between a JD and say a “Doctor of Laws.”

    The Law schools surely will have a trump card:

    well if it is good enough for Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, it is surely good enough for us!

    This trump card will be especially powerful as some US states now recognize certain Australian JD degrees on a par with a US JD, which means a U.Melb/UNSW/ grad can go straight to New York, sit the NY Bar exam, without having to take a year or 2 getting a US Law degree – usually a LLM.

    OTOH, I am not so sure the allied health schools will be able to exploit this Latin loophole to scramble on to the same funding lifeboat.

    As you say, the feds can wield the ultimate power by withholding funds – via refusing to permit CPS place for JDs. I see two problems with this:

    1. While in opposition a political party can much on this issue by babbling on about “equity” – as Labor did so successfully on full fee paying spots local undergrad students – there is no upside for that party once it is in government; especially Labor.

    2. The top universities – U.Syd, U.Melb, UNSW etc – might not care so much, and play their own political trump card:

    We had 1,000 (or whatever) applications for our 200 JD slots last year, 800 of which were prepared to pay the $30,000 per year. If this government insists on withdrawing the 90 CSP places, it must explain why it no longer values access and equity to the legal profession. However, we will work harder to raise funds ad offer our own funded ‘scholarships’ to continue our commitment to equity” blah, blah, blah.

    This August “Roundtable” should be fun to watch.

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  32. PP – I doubt that they would take the CSP route for the reasons you describe. The more likely route is that compliance with the AQF becomes a condition of any funding at all. The Minister can also remove any course from FEE-HELP eligibility (subject to disallowance by either house of parliament), which would kill the business models of most JD programs.

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  33. Andrew, while I needed a long bath after discovering that AQF organization’s website – especially with John Dawkins running it – if the government is paying, it has every right to make demands.

    The cynicism makes one puke. Imagine if the government suddenly announced a change in education funding towards TAFE away from universities. The Uni. Of Melbourne Law school would drop the JD in a flash, rebranding it a “Certificate in Legal Studies.” 😉

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