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Oxbridge should just leave the state system

By Andy Mayer
April 13th, 2011 at 10:03 am | 7 Comments | Posted in education, Social Mobility

For Oxford and Cambridge there is a very simple solution to the issue of political interference in their admissions processes, leave the state system.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s interventions this week, claiming race and income discrimination on the part of elite universities, are so evidence-free and infantile they barely merit comment.

Suffice to say the spectacle of the Coalition’s leading Oxbridge-educated figures behaving like socialist worker leaflet pushers ranting about social justice, is unlikely to inspire many youngsters that the route to success involves making a thoughtful case based on evidence. Something they teach in elite universities.

Access to selective education should be based on merit, and that’s all there is to it. What merit means should be up to the institution concerned, whether by competitive examination or interviews to root out untrained potential.

If groups are under-represented or failing to compete for places at age 18 is not the fault of the institutions concerned. Nor is it their role to correct it. All that means is denying someone who deserves a place on the grounds of ability, in order to give it someone less able who fills a quota.

That is not ‘fair’.

Nor is there any way of sensibly determining what a fair distribution of opportunity looks like. What ratio of children from Richmond to Barnsley attending Cambridge represents success in the mind of the DPM? 

Further the whole thrust of Liberal Democrat education thinking in the last decade has been that early intervention matters far more than late. That is point of the pupil premium. University access codes are in that regard are unlikely to be either effective or good value for money. 

But this is a tiresome debate. Politicians are politically motivated, such interference and nudges will continue so long as politicians run universities. The politics in this case concern promoting the absurd tuition fees compromise that is supposed to link price to pro-poor tokenism rather than supply and demand.

The threat made then is ‘do something about this or lose public money’.

Oxford and Cambridge should call their bluff.

The UK’s two best universities should not struggle to thrive in the private sector. Fees would rise, but then so would bursary schemes to offset the impact on those without the means to pay, revenue from venture research, and private sector sponsorship. Alternate private sector loan systems would emerge to facilitate payment, many less expensive than the RPI+3% charges in the government’s pseudo-graduate tax.

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Bludge – incentivising ignorance

By Andy Mayer
January 5th, 2011 at 4:25 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in education, Liberal Philosophy

There’s something about any mention of private education that brings out the worst in our opponents on the left. The eyes start twitching, the lips quiver, their fists clench in impotent rage, before bashing out polemics that equate spending your own money, on your own children, with harming the poor. 

There is no sanity in this position. The notion that identical lessons taught in the same establishment become good or evil depending on whether the teacher is paid by the taxpayer or the parent is nonsense.

Even if private education is a privilege and generally better than state education, which is open to debate, the liberal and unambiguously good purpose of education, whoever provides it, is to unlock potential. If you have the money to do that, what is the rationale not to?

To be against private education then is to believe using your own money to unlock your children’s potential sooner than might be possible if you did nothing is wrong. It is on that basis also an argument against any parental involvement in child rearing whatsoever, given so much access to life-changing opportunity happens in the home and outside world, not in school. Opportunities, in our stubbornly bell curve world, that tend to be materially better for those with money, intelligence, talent, and an interest in their kids. Why pick on schools?

Such a diatribe appeared yesterday on the Liberal Conspiracy website, a forum for the Miliband Tendency before there was a Miliband in charge. In it the General Secretary of the Fabian Society Sunder Katwala argues:

 “A real pupil premium could be funded by putting VAT on private school fees, and dedicating the resources to an educational mobility fund. “

Sunder is concerned that fiscal reality has watered down the Liberal Democrat pupil premium and wants something even more progressive. He wants to fund this to the tune of a highly dubious £1.5bn (Tim Worstall thinks £800m more a more likely harvest) by putting VAT on private education.

In doing so what he would achieve is to increase elitism and the divide between the private and state education sector by pricing out parents at the margin, and making very little difference to anything at the bottom end.

I think such vandalism, a deliberate and probably unworkable attempt to disincentivise something unambiguously good, deserves a new(ish) word: Bludge; a fusion of ideologically inspired bullying, bludgeoning and nudging to encourage bad choices.

Down Under, in the place that used to be good at cricket, the word, and derivative Bludger, means to scrounge, evade work, or act as a pimp.

Labour’s abolition of the assisted places scheme was a Bludge, driving the able children of the poor from the best independent schools. Refusing to let people spend their own money on better medical treatment, a scandal in the last Parliament, is another. Taxing relatively modest pension contributions is another. Weighing down volunteering with petty bureaucracy is yet another. I’m sure there are many others.

The opposite approach to Bludge in education would be to break down barriers between the private, public and third sector to encourage more and better education through variety, comparison, collaboration, and competition.  If education as a merit good requires a subsidy it should be available equally to all schools offering the standards required of the scheme.

Top-ups on vouchers should be seen as a good thing, it puts more money into schools and helps raise standards. Bar cost there is no meaningful difference between paying a top-up fee to a school or a private tutor at home. Even the hard left realise they can’t stop people paying other people to teach their kids in private, so why make it an elite privilege through artificial price caps? Issues of access can be addressed through scholarship schemes and foundations, based on either merit or the founding principles of the charitable trust.

All these things would make it profoundly more likely that people from a wider range of social backgrounds could access the best schools, and encourage all schools to improve.

The politics though would require politicians to reverse a generation of pandering to the opportunity-crushing ravings of the comprehensive movement and the Bludgers who want to nationalise children.

Courageous 27 vote in national interest

By Andy Mayer
December 9th, 2010 at 10:14 pm | 20 Comments | Posted in education, Liberal Democrats, Opinion

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Today’s tuition fee vote is a milestone for the Liberal Democrat party. It is the first time the party has had to seriously consider the wisdom of a policy designed for permanent opposition from the perspective of government. Twenty-seven of the fifty-five present and able to vote decided to vote in the national interest for a policy that was well-designed, fair, and should ensure sustained quality in the higher education for the many, not the few. They should be congratulated.

We cannot attribute exact motives to the twenty-one who voted against and seven that abstained, there is no coherent support for a single alternative proposition and most rely on either borrowing from unborn children, or damaging jobs and growth with higher taxes. But we can reasonably assume many had an eye to local tactical concerns or found breaking the pledge difficult and put career or conscience before country.

The student protesters, or rather the minority who turn up for a rumble not a grumble, once again, have damaged the opposition case. Assaulting horses, vandalising property and endangering peaceful protesters by putting them in harms way. Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students I feel would have been wise to call for a mass silent protest to highlight those excluded by higher fees. Both a more compelling way to make his point, and as a way of marginalising the extremists.

The change in policy is not secure yet, the House of Lords may well demand further concessions and prove a target for a new pledge campaign. But this vote was an important hurdle and the party needs to rally round and move on.