The argument against privatized universities usually runs as follows; education is a right and, as such, should be paid for by the taxpayer.
Whether education is a ‘right’ is a question worthy of a discussion in itself. The Bill of Rights of 1689 lists, among other rights, freedom of speech and freedom from royal interference in Parliamentary elections. More succinctly the Declaration of Independence of the United States listed just three rights in 1776, those to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Since then we’ve had a couple of centuries of capitalism, the greatest method of increasing living standards ever devised by humanity. As our ability to produce goods and services has grown, thanks to capitalism, ‘rights’ of access to these goods and services have proliferated.
But even if education is a right it still does not automatically follow that this means it should be provided by the state and paid for by the taxpayer.
Few would disagree that people have a right to food and clothing yet only the most lunatic left wingers would argue that these should be provided by the state. Communist China tried just this with clothing and 1 billion people got identical jim jams.
The clamour for the state (read taxpayers) to provide the food and clothing we each have a right to is dulled because the free market private sector does a very good job of providing them. Between 1982 and 2005, according to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of income spent by the average family on food fell from 21% to 16% while the cost of clothes fell by 2.6% per year between 1998 and 2008. Indeed, some now argue the free market does too good a job. The problem facing the less well off in the UK is not malnutrition but obesity.
So we see that free markets in the private sector lead to lower prices and greater variety. But, for some mysterious reason, it is argued that higher education will be different, that price will rise and people will not be able to afford the education they have a right to.
This equity argument for taxpayer funding falls apart almost immediately. Under the current state system a child of professional parents has a 72% chance of going to university. A child of unskilled parents has just a 13% chance. Given that graduates will earn, on average, more than non graduates over their working lives the taxpayer funding of universities is simply a subsidy for the children of the well off to earn even more. Increasing private provision, making these kids pay more for their own education, would leave more resources free for the children of the less well off.
The comparative lack of access to higher education for children of the less well off is caused by factors, such as lack of access to good quality secondary education, which are already in place before they start filling in the UCAS form. There is no reason to think that this existing problem will be exacerbated by private university education. Indeed, looking at how private markets work in providing other rights like food and clothing and how higher education works in the US, with it web of scholarships and bursaries, that it may free up more resources to help the less well off. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if the kids of the middle class continue to defend their subsidy and call it social justice.
(Printed in London Student, 08/11/10)