HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: UK

February 13

When Should the Education System Say “No”?

There’s an argument going on in the UK right now about re-introducing grammar schools.  Until the 1960s, grammar schools were a selective tier of the secondary system.  Everyone took exams at the age of eleven, and the most academically able were selected to go to these schools, the purpose of which (everyone understood) was to enable people to go to university.  Those who did not pass were essentially out of luck as far as further education went: their choices were circumscribed by the time they were eleven. Germany and some other central European countries still operate on this basis.  For some reason, the current government thinks it’s a good idea to go back to that system.

Like many others, I think it’s wrong for the education system to filter people at an early age.  Among other things, streaming – or any rationing by ability, really – is inevitably classist.  Yes, some poor kids will get through and get “a good education” and by some people’s lights this makes selection an “engine of mobility”.  But far more are consigned to the loser bin at an early age.  And that’s not good: you can’t ask the education system to kill people’s dreams off at such an early age.

But here’s the question: if not then, when?  Should the education ever say no to someone’s dreams?

We used to say “no” to people a lot.  We used to fail out a lot of kids from high school and that was OK, because hey, we had to have standards (I note with interest that Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, in their new book Dream Factories, have taken to calling near-universal high school completion rates an obvious example of “dumbing down”. Nice.) We used to restrict entry to university a lot.  Heck, 30 years ago we had fewer than half the number of students we had today, and the median student today would have had trouble accessing university in the late 1980s.  In some parts of Europe, even though they have so-called “open” admissions systems (everyone who passes the exit examination of the top-secondary school stream, such as the baccalaureat or the abitur) it remains policy to fail out large numbers of students after first year who “can’t handle the work” – that is, say yes, then say no.

To a considerable degree, widening access is about learning how not to say no to people.  But to some extent this just puts off the day of reckoning, because after education comes the labour market and the labour market is under no obligation to say “yes” to anyone.  There are more people who want to be professors than there are tenure-track jobs, more people wanting to be lawyers (crazy but true) than there are positions at law firms, more teacher-wannabes than teaching positions.  “No” comes, eventually, at least for some.

Now some people will argue that because the labour market says “no”, the education system also needs to say no – especially when it comes to professional schools. To these people, the expansion of law school (or Master’s degrees in education, take your pick) is a travesty. All those people paying for an education which doesn’t necessarily bring in a huge rate of return?  What we need to do is reduce the number of incoming students so as to raise average rates of return!  (There is a similar argument with doctoral students: there are never going to be enough academic jobs for these students, so why let them in in the first place)?

I get that argument, but to me it doesn’t wash any more than early selection washes.  Yes, there are more wannabe lawyers and teachers than available positions.  But why should anyone but law firms and schools be the ones who say no?  Why should higher education institutions be the gate-keepers?  Until you’ve actually given people a chance to succeed at a professional school, how would you know who the best lawyers/teachers will be anyway?  And how, in practice, will institutional gate keeping not simply re-introduce the class-based outcomes?

The only legitimate argument in favour of limiting enrolment, it seems to me, is if public money is at stake.  At some point, a government which feels it is not getting a good return on its investment because graduates are not getting jobs would be within its right to stop funding new places.  But if students are spending their own money, as they do for law school, why should anyone want to stop students from spending their own money to pursue their desired career?

Yes, consumers need to be protected from mis-selling, obviously; institutions shouldn’t be allowed to mislead people about the odds of someone eventually saying “no”.   But other than that, the moral case for institutions as gate keepers isn’t much better than that for bringing back grammar schools.

December 09

Does Student Debt Matter If You’re Not Going to Pay It Back?

You can accumulate one hell of a lot of debt these days in the UK.  Just in an undergraduate degree, fees are ‎£9,000 per year plus you can get another ‎£10,702 in maintenance loans per year of you’re studying in London.  Over a three-year degree that’s ‎£59,106 or a tad over $100,000 (yes, really). So, at face value one can understand the spate of stories coming out of the UK these days talking about how their massive debt loads are going to paralyze them for life, stop them being able to buy housing etc.

Except, wait – these are income contingent loans, not mortgage-style loans.  The maximum payment you have to make in any given year is 9% of marginal income over 21,000.  And the debt incurred doesn’t necessarily need to be paid back.  Loans are forgiven after 25 years, regardless of how much you have repaid.  Estimates vary, in part because it depends on what discount rates one chooses and in part because the government criminally keeps messing with the terms of the loans, but at the moment it is expected that between 25 and 40% of student loan balances will never be repaid and a higher proportion of students (perhaps 50%) will receive at least some forgiveness on their loans.  For those who do not repay their loans, the UK loan system is more like a tax than a loan – a 9% surtax on income over 21,000 which lasts for 25 years after graduation (more on that here).

Despite massive nominal debts, students simply aren’t facing massive repayment burden.   A graduate making 30,000 is only repaying 810 per year, or about 3.1% of after tax income, which is a heck of a lot less than the amount that the average Canadian graduate with student loan debt is paying (our grads pay close to 8% of after-tax income on average).  And they’re paying that regardless of how big their debt is, which is not true in Canada either: at any given level of income over $25,000 per year, Canadian student loans borrowers’ rise along with the amount of debt they have up to a maximum of 20% of family income.

(If you’re wondering how that works – how UK loans can be so big and yet borrowers repay so little – it’s precisely because the government expects quite large losses on the program.  Student loan burdens are easy to reduce if you’re prepared to go to extreme lengths to subsidize them).

The point of income-contingent loan systems like those in the UK, with their guarantees, their maximum payments and their generous forgiveness systems is precisely  to do everything possible to make life easier for borrowers, to ensure that their student loan debts are not going to affect their ability to borrow for other things later on.

But perception is everything.  If graduates feel that their large debts constrain their ability to do make certain life choices like buying a house even though (technically) they don’t, then can we say the policy is actually working? There’s an interesting side point here. When deciding on applications for mortgages or other types of consumer debt, it’s unclear whether banks in places like Australia and UK actually treat income-contingent student loan debt differently than Canadian and US banks treat mortgage-style debt.  They should, but apparently nobody knows for sure because no one’s ever checked – not that banks would necessarily fess up if they didn’t.

Now, I’m not saying that these stories coming out of the UK are in fact true; people in opposition to government policies will tend to come up with whatever argument sounds good at a particular moment. But even if such views aren’t widespread, the point raised is a good one.  Student loan policy wonks have always assumed that if you provide guarantees and limit liability/risk on student loans, then students will be ok with debt.  But if the facts of the policy don’t change people’s attitudes about risk, then the policies will fail, no matter how well they deal with the actual problems at hand.

But what’s the alternative?  It’s a bit of a scary thought.

September 09

Some Intriguing New UK Access Data

The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (also known in these parts as “the other HESA”) put out an interesting report recently on participation in higher education in England (available here).  England is of course of great interest to access researchers everywhere because its massive tuition hike in 2012 is a major natural policy experiment: if there is no clear evidence of changes in access after a tuition hike of that magnitude then we can be more confident that tuition hikes elsewhere won’t have much of an effect either (assuming students are all given loans to cover the fees as they are in England).  I’ve written about previously about some of the evidence that has come out to date back here, here, here and here: mostly the evidence has shown little to no effect on low-income students making a direct transition to university, but some effects on older students.

The new (other) HESA report is interesting.  You may have seen the Guardian headline on this, which was that since the change in fees, the percentage of state school students who proceeded to higher education by the age of 19 fell from 66% to 62% in the years either side of the policy change (note: regular state-school students make up a little over 83% of those enrolled in A-level or equivalent courses, with the rest split about equally between selective state schools and independent schools).  On the face of it, that’s a pretty bad result for those concerned about access.

But there are three other little nuggets in the report which the Guardian chose to ignore.  The first was that if you looked simply at those who took A-levels, the drop was much smaller (from 74% to 72%).  Thus the biggest drop was from those taking what are known as “A-level equivalents” (basically, applied A-levels).  The second is that among the very poorest students – that is, those who receive free school meals, essentially all of whom are in the main state sector – enrolment rates essentially didn’t move at all.  They were 21% in 2011/12, 23% in 2012/13 and 22% in 2013/14. All of this is a long way up from 13% observed in 2005, the year before students from families with incomes below £20,000 had to start paying tuition.  Third and last, the progression rate of state school students to the most selective institutions didn’t change at all, either.

So what this means is that the decline was most concentrated not on the poor in state schools but in the middle-class, and landed more on students with “alternative” credentials.  That doesn’t make a loss of access any more acceptable, but it does put a crimp in the theory that the drop was *caused* by higher tuition fees.  If “affordability” (or perceived affordability) were the issue, why would it hit middle-income students more than lower-income students?  If affordability were the issue, why would it be differentially affecting those taking alternative credentials?  There some deeper questions to answer here.

 

June 09

Modes of College-Going

At HESA towers, we’ve recently been looking at some data on student costs of living in various countries.  This has prompted a number of observations with respect to the ways in which higher education – however global and transnational it may occasionally appear to be – is still deeply rooted in national cultures.

One of the things that started us going down this route was looking at estimates of cost of living for American students.  Everyone of course knows that students at American universities live in relative luxury what with the hotel-style dormitories, gourmet food options, climbing walls, lazy rivers and whatnot.  But what kind of staggered us when we took a look at the data was that American students actually appear to be paying *more* once they leave campus.  According to IPEDS, On-campus cost of living is $11,795 (C$14,792), off-campus (not with parents) cost of living is $12,986 (C$16,484) (for comparison, surveys show average living costs of off-campus not-with-parents in Canada is around C$8,500).

Now take this data with a grain of salt: American cost-of-living data is not based on surveys as it is in Canada, but on a compilation of institutional estimates of costs of living (at diligent institutions this may be based on student surveys but at less diligent institutions it may be a number dreamt up with a view to making students eligible for larger sums of students loans).  But at a deeper level there is a truth here.  American families (middle-class ones anyway) do view the higher education experience in a slightly different way than Canadians do.  Up here, there is a sense that post-secondary is a time when students “pay their dues” and live frugally; in the US, college is supposed to be “the best four years” of a student’s life.  And that materially affects the standard of living we expect students to maintain which in turn affects how much students “need” in order to attend college.  And apparently, that amount is “nearly twice as much per year as in Canada”.

Or, take the UK.  This is a country where over 70% of students leave home to go to school.  This has been falling gradually from the low 90%s twenty years ago, but the fall has been very gradual and seemingly unrelated to spikes in tuition fees (the increasing proportion of students from non-white backgrounds, who may not subscribe to this cultural tradition, is a likelier culprit.  You’d think that as tuition went from $0 to $16,000 you might get a *little* bit of price response, but no: spending huge wodges of cash to live away from home is so ingrained as a being part of the “university experience” that even big increases in costs (both tuition and, if you’re studying in London, rent) make little dent in the practice. 

Of course, in some parts of Europe, it’s the opposite: almost nothing gets students out of the house in Italy and Greece (even with low or no tuition): living away from parents simply isn’t part of the DNA.  In theory that should make higher education more accessible because it’s cheaper, but there’s not much evidence that’s the case.  In Scandinavia, people tend to draw out their time in universities, entering later and spending a lot of time switching back and forth between school and the labour market (more on that here). Result: on average, Scandinavian students are a *lot* older than North American ones.  Similarly: in South Korea, males have to do (roughly) two years of universal military service, which for reasons which I’ve never been able to work out, most males do in the *middle* of their university career (a common pattern is to do military service after sophomore year), which means their time-to-completion stats look very weird.

Anyways, the point of all this is simply to  remember that while higher education is a “common” global experience which a growing percentage of the world’s youth undergo, it remains embedded in some deeply national cultures about how students should transition from youth to adulthood.  It’s a major reason why access and student aid policy doesn’t travel well; it’s also why international comparisons  of students and student outcomes need to be done *very* carefully.