Wednesday, 2 December 2009

“Education is a Right not a Privilege!”

This month Lord Browne began a review into student university fees with the focus on how to ensure “all students with the ability and motivation go to university.” The problem is universities are desperate for more funding, and as the recession is forcing government to cut back spending this extra funding would have to come from students. Without extra funding the standard of research intensive universities, such as Oxford, will decline most.

This might not actually be a bad thing, as it would improve universities in the middle and bottom of the league tables. After all it is not the expensive tutorial system or the extensive research that makes Oxford or other Russell group universities better, but the students. So long as there is the perception amongst students that there are better universities students will self-select into them. Without this perception top students would spread throughout the higher education system improving universities at the bottom, and, the argument goes, this will help other students.

A BBC survey suggested universities would be happy to see tuition fees increase up to £20,000 and want to set their own fees, prompting fears universities are becoming elitist. This flies in the face of the socialist mantra that education is a right, which underlies the Liberal Democrat’s commitment to scrap tuition fees and Labour’s target that 50% of students should attend university.

The argument that increasing tuition fees forces the poorest students out of higher education making universities elitist doesn’t stand up, however. As top-up fees are paid back after the degree, the logic isn’t whether the fee is affordable now, but whether the course is value for money and economically viable. Even students from the poorest families shouldn’t be deterred from applying for medicine when the course costs over £40,000 because job prospects are good. The real victim of higher tuition fees will be media studies et al.

This may mean fewer students from poor backgrounds attend university, but this is a reflection of the state education sector underachieving. When top universities accept disproportionate numbers of privately educated students they expose the different standards in private and state education. For a government whose motto was “education, education, education” this is very disappointing. For Labour to reach its 50% target it either had to encourage private education or make university courses easier to qualify for, and obviously it chose the latter.

Labour did this in two ways. Firstly it introduced degrees that were academically soft with low entry requirements. Secondly Labour inflated grades by creating lots of different exam boards that needed to compete for schools to secure funding. The ‘results culture’ creates enough pressure on schools that they choose boards offering the easiest exams, which leads to grade inflation.

In other words, Labour has only managed to increase participation by spending billions of pounds on universities, which allows them to charge low fees; but now the budget is at breaking point Labour has to choose between maintaining university standards and its 50% target. Letting tuition fees rise effectively closes economically unviable courses, but the alternative is to deny the extra funds universities say they need. It’s a tough choice – but those who say there is a duty to widen inclusion in universities mistake the right to education for the right to go to university. If education is a right students have been violated before they reach university.

It is because higher education is such a difficult issue that Browne’s review won’t be published until after the election. But if Lord Browne agrees with universities and allows something close to a free-for-all in terms of tuition fees, where universities can charge anything but where students at the same university on different courses pay the same fee, we will see a return to a two-tier system. One group of universities will offer tough, expensive courses to better students, and another group will offer less demanding courses with less good job prospects but at affordable prices. It will be an informal return to the polytechnics Labour scrapped.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Why the ‘harm principle’ may do more harm than good

Reproduced from with permission.

Andrew Steele, Christ Church

(Not a Liberal Democrat)

Why did the libertarian cross the road? ‘Because I bloody well wanted to, and it’s not your job to go and interfere in what I do, so long as it doesn’t cause anyone any trouble!’

This sentiment, beloved of the political right and free marketeers, is known as the ‘harm principle’: that we do not have the right to stop people doing something if doing it does not harm anyone else. It was expressed rather better in John Stuart Mill’s seminal political philosophy text On Liberty, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Check this out:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Rousing stuff, especially given the stern, paternalistic Victorian tone. (I’m not being sarcastic—I do think this kind of writing draws warmth and authority from its archaic eloquence.) However, as a manifesto for morality, this tub-thumping libertarianism is inherently, irredeemably inconsistent.

The most common problem with the libertarian outlook is that it’s very rare for any action to not have consequences for the other individuals in society. For example, even if your free choice to take up juggling electrified knives in the bath only poses a danger to yourself, and you have no friends or relatives to be left grieving, someone is going to have to come and clean up when you die in a bloodied, electrocuted pile. Worse, you’re depriving society of your contributions to it which, unless you’re either completely useless or a total bastard, we would hope will come out net positive.

Even worse still, it’s not just fabricated, exaggeratedly dangerous leisure activities which have unexpected moral knock-on effects; your decision to piddle away Sunday afternoon reading a trashy novel means that you weren’t spending the time doing something morally useful, such as trying to help the poor and deprived. Suggesting that we should be compelled to spend all our free time bettering the disadvantaged rather than engaging in hobbies makes us Westerners, as self-determined champions of the individual, squeamish; moral philosophers would bemoan that this conclusion does not accord with our moral intuitions, as though our ill-founded, socially-constrained first guesses are a yardstick by which ethical theories should be assessed. However, regardless of whether the ethical equivalence of inaction drops a moral imperative in our laps, it does illustrate that there is almost no activity which takes place in a moral vacuum where it does not affect others, rather making a mockery of the ‘harm principle’ as stated by Mill.

Even if you do regard necessitating consideration of others in these indirect ways as too prescriptive, or contrive an act in somehow insulated such that you can perform it with no impact on your peers, though, the harm principle still falls down. The reason it falls down is the less flippant punchline to the joke I opened with: imagine a libertarian (let’s call him John) and I are crossing the road.

John is an adult, quite a bright bloke, and is alert, sober, wide awake, and fully compos mentis by any measure you choose to take. In spite of this, for whatever reason he doesn’t see the car which is careering around the corner and will, in a moment, flatten his head against the tarmacadam road surface. Would he rather I put my hand in front of him and stopped him from being run over? If the answer is yes, that’s the end of libertarianism.

John would probably want me to rugby-tackle him to the ground, or even chop his legs off with a samurai sword, in extreme enough circumstances (for example, if the car was an SUV travelling at just the right speed to cause an agonising, drawn-out death): if that’s not ‘compelling him, or visiting him with any evil’, it’s not clear what is.

He made the decision to cross the road, and ‘over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’—but he did so with imperfect information. It seems to me abundantly clear therefore that there is some level of misjudgement of danger where it would be moral to intervene.

The most clear-cut examples of this exist at the nanny state level; from government health warnings on packets of cigarettes to legal minimum tyre tread depths, government has a moral duty to protect us, whose brains are so notoriously ill-equipped to comprehend statistics, from doing ourselves a nasty.

It would be wrong to take this as a vindication of any intervention intended to protect people from themselves. Firstly, freedom is clearly of some importance to human happiness: whether free will is illusory or otherwise, it seems empirical fact that people have more fun when they’re granted the illusion, and allowed to make their own decisions. Secondly, in a world largely comprising shades of grey, the lack of rigorous statistical certainty on many issues leaves us unable to work out whether intervention is right or not; a problem which is especially vivid at the individual level. It’s much trickier to know with certainty how bad an impending road traffic accident is going to be, and thus what evil you should be allowed to visit John with to prevent it, especially in the fraction of second you have to make the decision. John would probably be pretty peeved if I cut his legs off with a samurai sword, and I’d have to be able to demonstrate that I’d saved him from a near-certain, horribly unpleasant fate.

Thus, though we do not know what a perfect moral theory might look like, I cannot see how Mill’s harm principle is a useful contribution to ethics. Indeed, it seems a great shame that Mill gives a heavyweight intellectual’s rubber-stamp to irksome ‘get-your-nanny-state-off-me!’ right-wing–ness. Plus, in tedious sociological recursion, it’s not clear whether our slavish devotion to free will is at least partly a social construct, built thanks to the appeal of the libertarian narrative.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Evil English

Peter Hain’s attack on the BBC for allowing Nick Griffin on Question Time effectively sticks two fingers up at the hundreds of thousands of people driven to vote BNP by Labour disillusionment. Indeed, it’s a damning indictment of Labour’s democratic record; when democracy’s hard to work, ignore the people. Yet there is a less obvious culprit for the BNP’s success than Labour’s obnoxious decision making process.

Nigel Farage talked about UKIP’s ‘progressive’ agenda that marks it out from every other anti-European party, and threw the BNP out of UKIP’s party conference when they stormed in demanding a ‘pact’ in November 2008. Yet in the local council elections 80% of the seats the BNP contested were free from UKIP challenge and 85% of the seats UKIP contested were free from BNP challenge. It was, however, a north-south divide, and might be explained firstly by the middle-class policies of UKIP – bring back grammar schools, scrap inheritance tax, scrap progressive tax, and ‘reform’ welfare benefits – that appeal more to the Home Counties, and secondly a scarcity of resources best spent in these places.

But the inquest can’t stop there because UKIP voters, despite the differences between the parties, share a common trait with most BNP voters – an English identity. UKIP compete with the BNP for the same sort of voters so could contest them all over the country, but crucially they are the only party that could. No other party can take BNP votes without concessions on Europe or immigration. Both parties are protest parties at the same thing – an institutional rejection of English importance. For good or bad ‘Englishness’ is demonised as much as a concession to Europe and multi-cultural cohesion as its association with the far-right. But now UKIP are the second largest British party in Europe, and have the associated funding benefits, shouldn’t they shoulder more of the burden to fight extremism, and go face-to-face with the BNP in places like Manchester, and Leeds?

I like to think they would, if it wasn’t that they would have to play up their ‘English’ credentials, and the years Farage and UKIP have spent escaping from bizarre accusations of racism, fuelled by the stigma attached to the ‘drunken English chavs’ and any party who supports ‘Englishness’, will probably stop them. So the irony is if degrading the English partially led to the rise of the BNP who exploit damaged patriotic egos, it has also meant the best chance of stopping them is too scared to do so.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Old Labour's Curse of the Economy

Ben Storrs, Press and Publicity Officer

At the beginning of the credit crunch questions focused on how responsible Gordon Brown was for building a financial economy dependant on the competitively minimal regulation that partially led to the crunch. The answer is Brown led the way to deregulation. Now the question is how well Britain is placed to deal with the problems.

A lot has been said about how “the cupboard is bare”, our “record debts” and the “largest expenditure since records began” but this conceals a few important facts. Firstly Gordon Brown lowered debt as a proportion of GDP from 45 to 30% by 2002. To put that into more perspective it was the lowest GDP debt of any G8 country by some margin. Unfortunately the next year Brown claimed to have abolished “boom and bust”, so ‘risk-free’ spending and debt shot up. But even now GDP debt is only about 50% (it’s difficult to tell precisely, but it will rise massively in the next 3 years) and in real terms (i.e. taking the effects of inflation into account) GDP debt was much higher post war.

So Labour have a good case when defending the national debt. Yet the problem is the budget deficit which is much more than the 3% that should incur an EU fine. There is no obvious way we can balance the budget in the next parliament because Britain is already saturated with taxes, and this is why we're in a very bad position to cope with the recession. The 50% income tax rate next year will be one of the highest in the world; our 24% national insurance tax rate is lower only than the equivalent rate in countries such as Romania, Belarus and Latvia. And many economists have argued we are already past the apex of the Laffer curve – so increasing taxes further will lead to less revenue. So although Japan and the US are up to their necks in debt, both countries tax revenue is less than 30% of GDP so both countries have the scope to recover – our taxes annually yield over 40% of GDP.

If courting bankers was the mark of a new Labour, the excessive spending is pure Old Labour. They have drained the country with high tax during periods of economic growth and in this sense the cupboard is bare, and we have been living beyond our means for the last twelve years. The criticism that Labour’s only policy is to throw money at the problem seems particularly apt. The fire sale of assets that has recently been announced may fly in the face of nationalisation and suggest New Labour is still here, but it may also be a desperate attempt of a party out of ideas to keep the economy from sinking.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Statesman of the Year or American Stooge?

Ben Storrs, Press & Publicity Officer

Gordon Brown may have won the statesman of the year award in New York last month but opinion polls still record all time lows in his domestic popularity. On an international level he is much more popular after leading the G20 to deliver a global plan for recovery at the London summit. But he is especially liked in America for his decisive action after congress rejected the trillion dollar Federal Reserve plan to buy up toxic assets in US banks. Gordon Brown swept in to use British money to buy hefty stakes in banks. Barack Obama has said Brown’s actions were unprecedented and bold. He “saved the world” – and this was the reason the G20 summit was held in the UK.

When presenting the award Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, praised Gordon Brown’s “dedication to handling the world economic crisis”. Yet this is the problem. The credit crunch may have had global implications but it wasn’t a crisis for the whole world; it was an Anglo-Saxon crisis; it originated in America and Britain and it affected us more than anyone else. Yet it was left to the junior partner to bail out the financial system first. Brown mortgaged Britain to pay for America.

We are spending the equivalent of 45 to 50% of our GDP to bail out the economy because America didn’t, and in return Brown has been fobbed off with this award. Yet he doesn’t see a problem with this. On receiving the award he said “After 1945, the world summoned its energies to build a new international order. Now we are being tested again...something bigger and even more lasting than the great reconstruction of the post-war era is possible: the creation of the first truly global society.” A global society? Was that really in his job description?