Should taxpayers fund university education at a time of crisis?

This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management, and Aldo Geuna, professor of Economics at the University of Torino, Italy. Their new book The University and the Economy: Pathways to Growth and Economic Development is published by Edward Elgar.

Higher-education-fundingWith the recent financial and debt crisis, the extent to which the public can afford to fund universities has become increasingly controversial: in the context of tight public budgets and widespread cuts to public spending, even in areas perceived as basic services to support the more vulnerable members of society, what reasons could there possibly be for continuing to fund a “luxury” like higher education?  Dr Federica Rossiand Professor Aldo Geuna consider the viability of publicly funded universities and their alternatives.

Some convincing reasons must exist if, as it emerges from data reported by the European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory a majority of 14 European countries, out of 24 for which data are available, have increased public funding for universities in the period 2008 -2012, right through the latest recession. Investment has increased in, among others, Austria, Germany, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Ireland and the United Kingdom are the only countries in Northern Europe to have decreased investment, together with debt stricken countries in Southern Europe and some Eastern European ones.

The argument against: higher education generates mainly private benefits

The main argument against the public funding of higher education builds on the view that the benefits of higher education are enjoyed mainly by university graduates, in terms of potentially higher future earnings and lower probability of unemployment, rather than being shared across society. If the benefits of higher education are strictly private, then why should the general public pay for it? The cost of higher education instead should be met by the students who will directly benefit from it.

This argument is reinforced by the fact that information and communication technology makes it easy to disseminate and access knowledge: when students anywhere can access the knowledge produced by the best academics in the world at the click of a button, why should governments fund them to physically attend lectures at a local campus? Using openly disseminated materials provided by prestigious universities could provide a way for poorer students, who would not have the upfront resources to pay for university fees, to access the same or even better knowledge at a fraction of the price.

In reality, however, things are rarely this simple. And indeed several theoretical and practical arguments have been made to support the view that there are still good reasons for providing substantial public funding for higher education even (or maybe especially) at a time of crisis.

But: the private benefits of higher education are risky and with a delayed pay back

The opportunity cost of studying is high over the short term while its private benefits are risky and with a delayed pay-back. Given that young people often have no resources of their own, or are either unwilling to undertake the risk, or they have no access to private credit (as financial markets are imperfect), then without incentives, investment in education would be lower than optimal.

The only students who would invest in undertaking higher education would be those who are rich enough to pay upfront, ramping up social and economic inequality. This is even more undesirable when we consider that the private benefits of university education tend to be higher for those individuals who come from less well-off families who generally do not enrol at university.

So there is a general consensus that some form of government intervention is necessary in order to increase the number of students undertaking higher education, and to do so while preserving some form of equal opportunity of access.

One way to do this is to provide full public funding of higher education in order to make it completely free at the point of delivery. However, this is not the only possible approach, and indeed it is becoming less frequent: it has even been shown that blanket funding irrespective of an individual’s income could have regressive effects on the incomes distribution. In most countries, systems are in place according to which students contribute at least in part to the funding of their education, but grants and loans exist to support those students who lack resources of their own.

Recently, for example, the United Kingdom has introduced a loan-based system where students receive a loan from the government in order to fund their education, and pay the loan back once they benefit from higher salaries in the job market. Here, the government is prepared to sustain the risk of students not paying back their loans if their future income does not meet a minimum threshold or if students are impossible to track down – a risk which has an important systemic component (for example, both types of risk would be systematically increased by a recession, where graduates are less likely to reach the minimum income thresholds and also more likely to emigrate in search of better job opportunities).

If such systemic problems were to occur, the cost to the public purse could actually turn out to be quite high. Moreover, even if we accept that students should in part contribute to the cost of their university education, issues like how much they should contribute and whether this contribution should be linked to their ability to pay it, remain open to debate.

The social benefits of higher education are anything but negligible

It has been shown that both an increase in the share of graduate population and an increase in the growth rate of graduates generate a more than proportional increase in economic growth. This suggests that the broader public who have not attended university also benefit from having colleagues and fellow citizens with a higher level of education, thanks to the latter’s contribution to economic growth, which goes beyond their own individual productivity.

In particular, research has suggested that a more educated workforce:

  • has a positive effect on the productivity of colleagues with a lower level of education
  • facilitates and accelerates the adoption of existing technologies not yet implemented
  • is more likely to introduce product and process innovation and therefore to economically exploit radically new technologies – a particularly important process in economies which already operate on the technological frontier.

There are also important indirect effects. Education can improve citizens’ health, stimulate political participation and encourage a sense of civic duty and interpersonal trust, factors that are important for the competent functioning of economic institutions and their performance.

The presence of these external effects provides arguments in support of the general taxpaying public contributing to the funding of higher education, whose benefits are felt across society at all levels. This is one reason why public university fees are, and should be, quite low when compared to the average cost of a student’s university education.

What education, rather than just how much education, matters

If universities’ sources of funds are entirely private, this introduces incentives for universities to maximize enrolments in the short term by focusing on those disciplines for which demand is greater, in order to swell the number of enrolled students and thus increase revenues. Research has shown that privately funded institutions tend, overall, to focus on the most popular subjects. From the perspective of maximizing the contribution of higher education to economic growth, this is likely to lead to dynamic inefficiencies.

First, there is no linear correspondence between students’ demand for higher education and the actual labour market’s needs for specific competences, since student demand for courses is based upon subjective evaluations and incomplete information. This is the reason why, for example, the United Kingdom continues to pour public funds into the teaching of STEM disciplines which are perceived to have high economic importance even though student demand for STEM courses is low.

Second, there is a real difficulty of foreseeing what academic disciplines will turn out to be important in the future. How to anticipate, for example, which subjects will best support the educational needs of individuals and companies in 15 to 20 years’ time? The skills required by an economic system are the result of events that cannot easily be predicted, such as geopolitical changes or the emergence of new technologies. It is important to allow universities to continue to educate students in a broad variety of fields, keeping the system sufficiently flexible and open and allowing for possible adjustment in the event of unexpected changes – something that can be accomplished only if universities are at least in part free from the compelling need to passively respond to market demand.

9781782549482_4_1And finally…can technology be the answer?

While ICT is certainly helpful in broadening access to knowledge, there are numerous arguments that suggest that simply having access to knowledge does not equate gaining an education into a particular field or topic. Being able to access free university courses online does not substitute for the ability to attend a physical institution, for a number of reasons:

  • A certain level of previous education is often required in order to understand advanced knowledge. University institutions can provide the tailored training that weaker students (especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may have the needed qualifications to enter university, but whose quality may not be as good) might need in order to bridge the knowledge gap that separates them from stronger students and allow them to complete their studies
  • The transmission of knowledge is enhanced by direct interactions with teachers
  • It has been shown that being part of a community of practice, though meeting and interacting with other students, enhances learning and motivation
  • Some of the benefits of higher education come from being part of a social community of students and from developing connections that continue after university

While some of these benefits could be re-created virtually (for example virtual communities of practice can be set up), overall it is unlikely that students can derive the same benefits from accessing materials that are openly available online as from attending university courses that are tailor-made for a specific and small group of students. The weaker students in particular are the least likely to have the ability to benefit from this, which invalidates to a large extent the argument that freely available online courses can provide an effective way for school leavers priced out of university to gain the same education as fee paying university students.

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Facing psychological coercion and manipulation has become a daily part of claiming benefits

This post was contributed by Lynne Friedli, researcher with Hubbub; Robert Stearn, PhD candidate in English and Humanities at Birkbeck; and Dr Felicity Callard, director of Hubbub and Reader at Durham University. Hubbub is an interdisciplinary project of scientists, public health experts, clinicians and humanists funded by the Wellcome Trust and run from Durham University, with support from the Max Planck Institutes and the University of York. This blog post first appeared in The Conversation on Monday, June 8

Workfare-webCuring unemployment is a growth market for psychologists. Job Centres are becoming medical centres, claimants are becoming patients, and unemployment is being redefined as a psychological disorder.

Made-up ailments such as “psychological resistance to work”and “entrenched worklessness” feature in ministerial speeches and lucrative Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contracts, without attracting a murmur of protest from professional psychologists.

Psychological explanations for unemployment – the failings of the maladjusted jobseeker – isolate, blame, and stigmatise unemployed people. They reinforce myths about “cultures of worklessness”; they obscure the realities of the UK labour market and the political choices that underpin it. The same is true of psychological prescriptions for treating unemployment.

Interventions

People claiming benefits are already subject to psycho-interventions through mandatory courses designed to promote “employability” and “job readiness”. And as we show in a new paper published in Medical Humanities, “positive psychology” is pervasive in Job Centres (the newly privatised Behavioural Insights Team has trained more than 20,000 Job Centre staff). A narrow set of approved psychological and personality traits are widely touted as essential to getting and keeping a job: confidence, optimism, positive, aspirational, motivated, and infinitely flexible.

Motivational “messaging” targets both staff and claimants, and is set to intensify. The 2015 budget sets out government plans to put therapists in job centres this summer. Online cognitive behavioural therapy will also be provided, in order to “improve employment outcomes” for claimants with mental health conditions. (Some of the many problems with these approaches have recently been discussed in The Conversation.)

The “change your attitude” message of positive psychology is enforced by unsolicited “positive thinking” emails sent to claimants, and in mandatory “employability” training courses promising to help with “self-esteem, self-confidence and motivation”.

Employability, workfare and sanctions

People on benefits are made to take part in various pointless and humiliating psychological group activities (like building paper clip towers to demonstrate team work), or take completely meaningless and unethical psychological tests to determine their “strengths”. But the goal is not a job with pay that you can live on. Instead, this is an intensive “change your attitude” programme, which – along with other forms of workfare – is designed to force people off benefits.

Workfare is a name for the different kinds of “work-for-your-benefits” schemes, exported from the US, which have spread to many rich democracies over the last two decades. In the UK, unemployed people are forced to work unpaid for a charity, business, or local authority in order to continue to be eligible for benefits (both Job Seekers’ Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance – the benefit paid to sick and disabled people).

Workfare also includes coaching, skills-building and motivational workshops, and schemes that are part training course, part unpaid work placement. Failure to take part in these schemes may result in harsher or more demanding workfare activities or benefit sanctions.

Sanctions amount, as David Webster has recently argued, to a “secret penal system”. Entrenched, arbitrary, and unaccountable, they deprive people of the money they need to eat and live. Workfare – backed by sanctions – also ensures a steady supply of free labour, replacing paid jobs, further depressing wages, and creating a claimant workforce without the legal status and rights normally given to workers. The unemployed person is a generator of income for everyone except themselves.

At the same time, assessing “employability” and enforcing activities said to increase it is now a central function of workfare, stimulating the growth of a state-sanctioned, state-contracted industry heavily influenced by – and reliant upon – psychological “magic” .

“Employability” isn’t a set of skills or attributes required for a specific job or job offer (receptionist, bus driver, call centre operator, care worker). Rather, it is about personality and emotions: achieving a generic upbeat state; having the characteristics, attitudes and habits of “the sort of person who can get a job” – the familiar roll call of confidence, self esteem, motivation and aspiration so celebrated by the CBI, as they lament the absence of these “job ready” attributes in young people leaving school or university and identify “a positive attitude as the key foundation of employability”.

Attitudes to work

This means that “attitude to work” – boosted by confidence courses and assertiveness sheets – becomes a legitimate basis for deciding who is and who is not entitled to social security and a condition placed on receipt of benefits.

In the past, conditionality related to things like refusing to take a job after receiving three offers of work. This was hardly beyond criticism. Now, the supposed absence of positive affect can trigger some form of sanction. “Lack of work experience or motivation” is one of the criteria for being sent on a Community Work Placement – six months’ unpaid community service for 30 hours a week.

 

Esther McVey, former minister of state for employment, talked about targeting people who are “less mentally fit, bewildered, despondent”, and about the difference between those who are “apprehensive but willing” and those who are “reticent but disengaged”. While unfit claimants will be sent on “more intensive coaching”, those who are “optimistic” can be placed on less rigorous regimes. This is how the DWP will decide who is to be punished with “extra support” – 35 hours a week at a Job Centre.

Medical professionals as state enforcers

The 2015 Conservative manifesto stated that claimants who “refuse a recommended treatment” may have their benefits reduced. This attempt to co-opt medical professionals as state enforcers is what led to the first protest by psychologists. However, while campaigns such as Psychologists Against Austerity have focused on the psychological impact of welfare reform, there has been little mention of psychology’s central role in disciplining and punishing people claiming benefits, or of the ethics of psychological conditionality.

Notwithstanding the UK’s low pay, no pay economy featuring a growing number of precarious, exploitative and part-time jobs, what employers want is “enthusiasm” and workfare is designed to ensure they get it. The “engage” training module will help job seekers achieve “a mindset that appeals to employers, assertiveness, confidence, understanding the benefits of work, motivation and coping with low mood”. In the Job Centre and at the premises of private training providers these positive psychological imperatives – frequently laughable in themselves – are plugged into a violent and coercive sanctions regime.

Substituting outcomes

The frameworks used for DWP evaluations of workfare schemes overwhelmingly focus on their psychological benefits. The explanation psychology offers, the treatment it delivers and legitimates, and the kinds of outcome it recognises, are also specified in DWP contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds (Focus the Mind, Achieve your Potential, Engage for Success). A programme for JSA/ESA claimants older than 50 even aims to persuade people that age discrimination doesn’t exist.

These developments raise important questions about the ethics of extending state surveillance – and state-contracted surveillance – to psychological characteristics. Psychology can offer a powerful critical perspective on these kinds of compulsion. But pressing issues of accountability and complicity have not been addressed by professional psychological bodies, in spite of persistent lobbying from anti-workfare campaigners. Boycott Workfare says that BACP – which sets standards for therapeutic practice – has been silent, and that they are still waiting for a statement from the British Psychological Society (BPS). Far from addressing the validity or ethics of assessing claimants for “psychological resistance to work”, BPS put out a press releasenoting that tests should be undertaken by qualified staff.

Psychological coercion and manipulation are part of the day-to-day experience of claiming benefits. It is time the profession took a stand against them.

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, reader in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and Dr Jennifer Hudson, senior lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL. It was originally posted on The Conversation on May 13

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice “between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford”.

SNP's Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour's Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

SNP’s Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour’s Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

Labour has the highest proportion of women in its parliamentary party. Its record number of 99 women MPs is the result of using all-women shortlists and the decision to put a majority of women candidates (53%) in winnable seats. So Labour’s conversion rate was higher, despite its poor performance in the polls.

Party breakdown (percentages are rounded). Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

With 26% of women candidates selected, the Tories have 68 women MPs, up from 47 in the last parliament. Although there was no equivalent of the A-List David Cameron used in 2010 to increase the number of women put forward for winnable seats, the Tories did place women in 38% of their retirement seats.

One of the key reasons for the increase in the number of women MPs is the performance of the SNP. The Scottish party came second and tied with Labour in terms of the percentage of women candidates selected (34%) and added 20 women MPs to the overall total – as well as the youngest in Mhairi Black.

Ethnic diversity

Perhaps surprisingly, given accusations of racism within the party, 6% of UKIP candidates were black or from an ethnic minority group. That’s more than the SNP, the Greens and Plaid.

The vote on May 7 saw 41 BME MPs elected to parliament, and increase on 2010 where 27 MPs were elected. MPs from non-white backgrounds make up just 6% of Parliament.

BME MPs. Percentages are rounded. Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

Prior to the election, it was suggested that the Conservatives had closed the gap with Labour when it came to the proportion of black and ethnic minority candidates in the running. Our data show that the Tories led the way with 10% of BME candidates selected to stand in 2010, compared to 8% for Labour and LibDems.

But this is not the success it seems when you look at winnable seats. While 13% of Labour’s black and ethnic minority candidates were placed in winnable or marginal seats, just 5% of those standing for the Conservatives found themselves in similar positions. Labour had 16 black and ethnic minority MPs in 2010 so the increase to 23 in 2015, despite poor polling, shows the importance of where candidates are placed.

The Tories were able to boost BME representation by selecting candidates in very safe retirement seats, including Rishi Sunak in Richmond, Yorkshire – a 44% Tory majority seat – and Suella Fernandes in Fareham, a seat with a 31% majority. The Tories now have 17 black and minority MPs – an increase of six from 2010.

True representation?

The increased diversity in Westminster after the 2015 election is a success worth celebrating, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. Paxman’s general premise – that there isn’t a great deal of diversity amongst the candidates of the different parties – still holds.

Women MPs make up just 29% of the new parliament, that’s less than a third for a country where women make up 51% of the population. It also puts Britain behind many of its European counterparts (Germany, France, Sweden), and well behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Kazakhstan. And black and ethnic minority MPs make up just 6% of parliament, despite representing 13% of the population.

To put the progress made in perspective, the UK would need to elect 130 more women and double the current number of black and ethnic minority MPs to make its parliament descriptively representative of the population it serves – and the political parties are still not offering enough candidates from these groups in the right places to make that happen.

Chrysa Lamprinakou, Marco Morucci, Sally Symington, Sam Sharp and David Ireland also contributed to this article.

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The United Nations: Is Language Just Part of the Plumbing?

This post was contributed by Dr Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Dr Lisa McEntee-AtalianisSince the first General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) in 1946, the United Nations (UN) has championed multilingualism and cultural diversity through the promotion and support of six official languages and a varied number of working languages for its work within its Headquarters in New York, its various agencies and in its outreach and fieldwork.

In its most recent resolution the UN reiterates its commitment to multilingualism, noting that the General Assembly:

‘Recogniz[es] that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally, Recogniz[es] also that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, and recognizing the importance of the capacity to communicate to the peoples of the world in their own languages, including in formats accessible to persons with disabilities, [and] stress[es] the need for strict observance of the resolutions and rules establishing language arrangements for the different bodies and organs of the United Nations…’ (65/311: 1)

However despite this de jure set up the de facto reality has seen a continued imbalance in the support given to these languages and in the linguistic practices of its membership, who have overwhelmingly favoured English.

Attempts have been made at Headquarters to redress this imbalance through rigorous inspections of the status of multilingual implementation across the system and via internal processes of review and reform across its organisations; the most recent precipitated by an inspection in 2011.

The UN has been vociferous in its continued support of multilingual provision citing its commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity. However increasing financial and administrative burdens, global challenges and realities have led to the emergence of regulations, recommendations and practices that run counter to this ideal. Moreover some argue that its language policy is somewhat ‘outdated’ and discriminatory given that a number of official languages spoken by Member States who joined subsequent to the initial policy formation fail to be recognised, forcing diplomats into negotiating positions in which they may not have the linguistic ‘upper hand’.

In a forthcoming publication (McEntee-Atalianis, in print) I detail the contemporary concerns of the UN with respect to their language policy and provision and relay findings from recent ethnographic and desk work carried out within the organisation.

The current system needs to be revised in order to foster a variety of language regimes across the ecology of the organisation. I presented these recommendations, with a specific focus on the role of member ‘agency’ in language policy formation for international organisations, at the recent ‘Symposium on Language and Exclusion’ hosted by the ‘Study Group on Language and the UN’ in New York last week, along with a number of other contributions from international scholars and UN language personnel who explored the role of language in the various activities of the UN (e.g. in international peacekeeping).

Contributors to the symposium discussed whether language has indeed just become ‘part of the plumbing’ within the organisation – a taken-for-granted resource used mechanistically – without regard for its power to include or exclude stakeholders, members and individuals in the field.

The overwhelming conclusion was that whilst the organisation has made some strides since its last inspection report (as detailed in A/69/282), it still has a long way to go to reform its current policy and practices to ensure it meets its goal of linguistic equity.

Like many organisations however the UN is difficult to penetrate. It has an established ‘Outreach’ programme and has Memoranda of Understanding with a number of academic institutions (in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas) but these MoUs are predominantly established to train language personnel in order to subsequently service the organisation in its official and working languages. Recommendations were made for the UN to extend its mandate in order to work with academics to support internal and external operations and nurture linguistic regimes suitable for contemporary international/transnational demands.

It is time to extend the plumbing metaphor, to envisage and prioritise language as THE vital resource fundamental to the functioning of the system, not just a necessary installation.

  • McEntee-Atalianis, L.J. (in print) ‘Multilingualism and the Unitied Nations: Diplomatic Baggage or Passport to Success?’ In Ulrike Jessner & Claire Kramsch (Eds.) Multilingualism: The Challenges. Trends in Applied Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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