UK Higher Education and US Health Care

It’s hardly a new phenomenon, but the public “debate” over health care reform in the US focused primarily on opposition that took the following form:

  1. Misrepresent the new proposal.
  2. Present existing problems as newly-introduced problems.
  3. Provide no alternatives; suggest that the choice is between the current proposal and some abstract principled ideal (instead of the status quo).
  4. Ignore (or misrepresent) approaches that have been robustly implemented elsewhere.

I followed that debate in the US media, but I was living in the UK at the time and this rather unproductive rhetorical pattern—particularly tactic 4—was frequently cited as “typically American”. There seemed to be an assumption that British politics were less susceptible to such insular ignorance.

It took less than a year, but we’ve already been provided with an example of the exact same tactics being used in an attempt to block policy reform in Britain, this time with respect to funding for universities.

As a quick primer for non-Brits, university students currently pay only a fraction of the true university tuition cost—the balance is funded by the government. Further, students are entitled to government-provided loans for living expenses while they are enrolled at university. The new proposal is for students’ tuition fees (which would be capped at £9000 per year) to be paid by the government but recorded as a loan to the student. Every year after graduating the student would be obliged to repay a part of this loan dependent upon their income (anyone making under £21,000 need repay nothing in that year); after 30 years any outstanding debt would be forgiven. Under both current and proposed plans, government costs are paid out of the general budget (i.e. general tax revenue).

As with the health care debate, this proposed policy shift highlights a number of interesting issues. What drives the real cost of a university education, and how can this be controlled? What motivates people to pursue university degrees, and what discourages them? Most importantly, what is the “value” of a university degree, whether economic, social, or otherwise? Is that value delivered primarily to the student, or is there an external benefit to society of having more graduates? How do these values differ between universities, courses, and students?

I have read a fair amount about the new funding proposal, and I have not found a single discussion in the mainstream media about any of these issues. Instead, we have a parallel of the health care debate:

  1. Plenty of implication that students will now need £9000 cash in hand to go to university. In fact, the new proposal reduces the money a student needs when they start university; the only increase is the amount they must repay afterwards.

  2. Arguments that low-income students will be discouraged from attending university because they don’t want to get into debt. Low-income students are already piling up debt with loans for living expenses during university, and that’s not to even mention the years of real income students forsake by studying instead of working. These are not new problems, and it’s not at all clear whether the new proposal will make them worse or better.

  3. Student protests are demanding that government retain “free education” for all students—despite the fact that education has never been “free” either for society as a whole (someone is paying for it) or for students themselves. There is an attempt to make this proposal a referendum on the notion of social mobility, which everyone on every side of the debate supports anyway.

  4. British awareness and understanding of the US university system (which, despite its many many problems, remains the envy of the world) is far worse than American understanding of British health care. I would not personally support adopting the American model wholesale, but a rational assessment of needs-blind admissions at private universities would be refreshing.

As is probably evident, I tend to support the new proposal on the grounds that it’s inherently unfair to force those who don’t attend university to pay for those who do and later go on to make enough money that they can afford to pay for it (retroactively). But beyond the policy itself, the rhetoric surrounding it has underscored two things that I discovered during my decade in the UK. First, the smug condescension heaped upon US politics and culture by the Brits is much less well-deserved than I thought before I left the US: the US really is that bad, but the Brits are seldom better. Second, the UK remains fixated on notions of “class” in ways that the US simply isn’t. This latter point merits far more attention than I can provide here, but it’s worth considering how Americans would react to the assertion that Harvard students deserve special dispensation because the country is so much better off for having them.