Monday, September 21, 2009

The Confederation of British Industry has generated some controversy with its report higher education. It advocates increased tuition fees, temporary abandonment of the target that 50% of the cohort should benefit from higher education, more financial support from business, and increased support for the STEM (schience, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject areas. These are not straightforward proposals.

Increasing tuition fees certainly sounds like an appealing way of maintaining funding for the universities at a time when the public finances are going to be squeezed. But the way in which students are funded in the UK make this option less simple to implement than might appear at first glance. Students receive a loan from the Student Loans Company, out of which they pay their tuition fees. These loans are funded by government. To be sure, the government can package these loans up and sell them to the private sector as parcels of debt - financial institutions are happy to pay upfront for an asset that will yield them returns in the future. But these parcels have to be sold at a discount. This discount reflects the fact that not all of what is loaned to students ends up being repaid - students on low incomes do not make repayments, and there is a write-off of the debt after 25 years. So, even though an increase in tuition fees might lead to a reduction in the amount of money that government needs to give directly to the universities, it would also lead to an increase in the amount of government expenditure needed to fund the student loan system. The extent to which tuition fees could be raised therefore entails a rather delicate balancing act. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has done interesting work on this. Some increase in tuition fees would certainly be possible. But the extent to which this could be done without entailing additional government expenditure is more limited than some commentators would appear to think.

The 50% target has always been contentious - not least because the figure itself appears to have been plucked out of thin air. It might reasonably be argued that, rather than have a target, young people should be allowed to make their own decisions about whether or not higher education represents, for them, a good investment. This year, many thousands of qualified school leavers have not succeeded in finding places in higher education. Abandonment of the target now would appear to be perverse.

It is not new for there to be calls for businesses to provide financial support to higher education. Many people agree that they should, but this does not, of course, mean that they will. Workers are not, in general, bound to their employers - we do not live in a slavery society. This means that workers are mobile across firms, which in turn means that firms are reluctant to pay for workers’ general education – they have no guarantee that the worker will stay with the firm long enough to give the company a return on its investment in that education.

The STEM subjects have been prioritised by government in recent years. There are, however, other subjects – notably business and law - that equally offer students a high rate of return.

While the CBI proposals are to be welcomed in that they will encourage debate, one would hope that the debate that is to follow will recognise some of the nuances that the proposals themselves fail to appreciate.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The National Institute for Economic Research estimates that the UK economy grew in the three months to the end of August this year. Official data will not be released until later in the year, and will cover the three months to September.

Meanwhile the FTSE index has risen above 5000 and appears - for now at least - to be staying there, giving further cause for optimism.

If these indicators are to be trusted, it would suggest that the recession has been quite short - five quarters - but also quite sharp. The rapid return to growth has surely been helped by the aggressive policy response of governments around the world. But that response in itself - desirable though it has been - has compromised the ability of economies to recover rapidly. The gulf that has emerged between public spending and tax revenues in this recession means that fiscal tightening over the next few years is inevitable. That tightening will constrain the growth of the economy in exactly the same way as the recent expansion of the budget deficit has stimulated it. The recession may be over, but the aftermath will be with us for several years to come.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The OECD has published the latest in its series of reports, Education at a Glance. This highlights the substantial rate of return to higher education in all OECD countries, and strongly argues the case for further investment in students' education, particularly as a means of ensuring that countries emerge out of recession with a labour force that is as strongly equipped as possible. This echoes the case made several months ago by David Bell and David Blanchflower.

Governments have been aggressive in their policy response to the current recession, and the impact of this will be felt for years to come in the form of a squeeze on public finances. But education has considerable appeal at times like these: we invest in young people's skills rather than let them depreciate through lack of use; we avoid the scarring effects of unemployment which can blight whole careers; we ensure that aggregate demand is stimulated, but also - crucial in the long run - aggregate supply is boosted, as the productive capacity of the economy is enhanced through education.