Gove’s grab for power

Tom Freeman has a great little investigation into the upcoming Bill to push through hundreds of new Academy schools, and comes to the conclusion that parents and local communities will get far less influence than the Secretary of State for Education:

This Bill is not about ‘parent power’. It’s about Gove’s power to bypass local councils and parliament, and it’s about governing bodies being able to bypass parents.

Is it a good idea to change the academies programme from being a way to rescue failing schools into an optional upgrade for potentially any school? What will be the effect not just on the schools that go for it but also on the wider education system? I’m afraid I’ve not had the chance to think this through. I’m not sure who has.

Gove claims that we don’t need to consult on his idea because it was discussed enough during the election campaign (despite the small point that the Tories didn’t win that election, and their coalition partners stood on a different kind of policy to enable school partnerships under local authority control). And this – as well as the Free Schools – will be funded from the cancellation of the Building Schools for the future programme.

We don’t need no Graduation (Tax)

So, we are back to the debate about how to pay for higher education. And the choice being presented is between increasing the tuition fees (to up to £14K a year to do a science degree), and introducing a Graduate Tax. I was opposed to the fees when they were brought in by the 1997 government, and I still am. I wasn’t too happy about the erosion of maintenance grants and their replacement by loans – a process that started under the Major government. When a Graduate Tax was being proposed back in the early 90s I opposed that too.

The problem with a lot of these approaches is that they take the simplistic basis that the only beneficiary of a university education is the student. This is untrue. Society as a whole benefits from having doctors, research scientists, architects, engineers, lawyers*, accountants etc. Companies and other employers have a pool of talent to draw on, and so ‘wealth’ can be created. Indeed, some graduates even become employers on the back of their knowledge and so are providing opportunities for other people to work (and not simply other graduates).

Yes, people with a degree are likely to earn more money as a result than people who do not, and this is a clear direct benefit to graduates. However, as a result, they are already likely to be paying more in taxes on income and consumption than those who do not. So why should they have to pay again through another special tax or through high tuition fees?

Now, of course so far I have simply been arguing against things, and it’s quite reasonable to ask what I would actually support, and how we should expect to pay for an expanded higher education sector**. So here it goes:

Because the whole of society benefits in general, and because one of the main ways in which graduates benefit is financially, why not simply use general taxation? We do it for pre-university education, don’t we? We don’t insist that kids with A-Levels pay extra for staying on for a couple of years more on the basis that they can get a better job as a result. It’s accepted that education up to the age of 18 is publicly funded, not simply because every child and their parents benefit from it, but because the nation as a whole is better off with a more educated populace. For a good thirty years (from 1962 to 1992), we had a system that provided full tuition and additional means tested maintenance grants. The prime beneficiaries of this system were the ‘baby boomer’ generation. In Scotland and Wales there is more public involvement than in England, with no tuition fees for Scotland at all.

But what would be the cost to taxpayers? Well, in 2002/3, there were 1.6 million UK students in undergraduate education in the UK, and by 2006/7 that had risen to 1.8 million (source DCSF). So I’ll assume that there are about 2 million today. Currently the tuition fees are up to £3,125 a year. This means that at the most about £6.25 billion would need to be found to pay the same tuition fees. This is equivalent to adding about 1.5p to the rates of basic Income Tax, NI, or VAT, according to HMRC figures, or a few more pence in the pound on higher rates. My numbers are rough, and over-estimates***, but that should allow some room for the expansion of higher education and increasing costs of tuition.

To supplement the costs, Universities should be encouraged and helped to get more private funding for research, through partnerships as well as from traditional funds like the Wellcome Trust. Indeed, I am far less worried about corporate involvement in universities (as long as it is regulated) than I am about it in schools.

Now, I fully realise that I am proposing a tax-and-spend policy at a time when the new government is embarking on a tax-and-cut policy in an attempt to rapidly reduce the deficit. However, I take a different approach to education than the Tories (and now Lib Dems) do – it should be seen as an investment to improve the ‘asset’ that is an educated society, rather than just as a cost. It may not be a change that is seen as affordable now, but it’s one that I would like to see put in place for the future.

Besides, making the change now would actually add to borrowing, because for the first two years all of the tuition would have to be paid for but the tax would not apply until people graduate and are working, and it would take decades to ramp up to the full revenue stream.

And let’s face it, any politician who graduated before 1999 will not have had to pay tuition fees, and any who graduated before about 1990 went to university in the era of the maintenance grant. If they want to make the system more expensive for students they could at least explain why the old ways were ok for them. Eh, Vince Cable?

* I know that lawyers are not always necessarily seen as a public boon, and certainly a surfeit of them is a very bad thing indeed, but as my girlfriend has an LLB I have to say that not all lawyers are irretrievably rotten. Mind you, she doesn’t work as a lawyer…

** We have seen an increase over the last 20 or so years, and at the moment there’s likely to be a levelling off. There are debates to be had about whether we need nearly 50% of people to get a degree and what degrees they should be taking, but this post is already long enough already. For my part, I think we probably should aim to have as many people living to their potential as possible, and I’ll leave it there for now.

*** Not all UK students in UK universities pay tuition fees, not all courses are full-time or charged at the maximum of £3,125. The figures include mature students, and those at the Open University and the private University of Buckingham

Seen this, Pawsey?

In my last post I mentioned the Gove affair. While there’s loads of attention being paid to his four (at last count) incorrect lists of school building projects being cancelled and his subsequent apologies, I don’t need to dwell on that for the moment.

And I will only briefly mention the stupidity of the policy in the first place. To cancel projects to build new schools (some of which had been running for years and were very close to signing contracts, and some were based on plans covering large areas which will now need to be torn up), simply to help pay for the seed money for another bunch of new schools to be set up by middle class parents and private companies – these being ‘Free Schools’ they can be run for profit – is not actually going to save any money. But it does satisfy the ideological free marketeers of the Tory Party, so it will happen.

No, what I want to focus on is a local MP who has seen his area affected and has almost immediately announced plans to march on Downing Street in protest. Ian Liddell-Grainger, whose Somerset constituency has been affected by the Gove cuts in that at least three schools will not now be built there as planned, is a Tory. Clearly he’s got a bit of a problem with reconciling his support for a government making cuts all across the country and fighting hard to avoid cuts in his own area. Perhaps he doesn’t understand Tory policy in enough detail, or didn’t realise that the new government wasn’t only going to clobber Labour voting areas.

But at least he is going to represent his constituents and make a proper show of fighting against cuts. I look forward to Rugby’s Mark Pawsey taking note and doing something about St Cross A&E

Edukashun, Edukashun, Edukashun

Every year, we go through a familiar cycle. Exam results come out, and they are usually better than the previous year’s. The government hails them as an example of increasing standards. The opposition pooh-poohs them as an example of easier exams.

So who is right? Certainly in the national conciousness, the apparent view is that the Tories are right. But is this view backed up by the facts, or is it just a collective set of prejudices based on tabloidism and nostalgia?

Well, the US based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement has report that comes out every four years – The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). The latest report covering 2007 has just come out, and it compares 60 countries around the world for 10 and 14 year old students’ ability and the standards used.

So where is England?

In the top ten for both science and Maths for both age-levels, ranging between at 5th and 7th places. Above Germany, Sweden and the US in each case. The top five are dominated by Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, with Latvia, Russia and South Korea doing well.

Was this better than last time?

Yes. Last time (2003) England came 18th for Maths at age 14. This time England came 7th. What is more, the previous years were even worse – in 1999 we cam 20th and in 1995 we came 25th. So clearly there is a trend of improvement over the past 12 years, accelerated in recent years.

But guess what, the Tories are claiming that it’s still a failure. That’s right, we’ve moved up from ‘mid table mediocrity’ under the Major government to the top ten, and Michael Gove calls us ‘Second Division’. Just as with the economy, the Tories will talk down the country in order to attack the government.

(hat tip: Bob Piper)