An Immobile Society: The Price of Knowledge

The Education Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank is currently concerned with researching inequalities in the UK’s education sector, and the effects of the privatisation and marketisation of learning. It recently held a thought-provoking panel discussion on this topic, entitled The Price of Knowledge. The audience were treated to the opinions of Mr Sean Coughlan (Education Correspondent for BBC News), Dr Wanda Wyporska (Executive Director at the Equalities Trust), Professor Francis Green (Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL), and Dr David Kynaston (historian and author of multiple books), who spoke on the issues of independent  schools, and of tuition fees for higher education. I shall comment on the discussion of both in turn.

Independent Education in the UK

What does the future look like for private schools?

In answer to our first question of the evening, the panellists identified two potential risks: the economic, and the political. Economically, private schools are businesses, and are therefore bound by the economic laws of supply and demand. Falling demand for private schooling would therefore represent a significant risk for their future. Politically, since independent schools are part of the broader education sector, they are subject to government policy. The British Department for Education could abolish private schools if it wished, or disadvantage them by, for example, removing their charitable status. However, the panellists eventually dismissed both political and economic concerns as implausible, and conceded that the future for private schools, at least in the short-to-midterm, looks favourable.

Private schools boast a secure economic position. All the panellists agreed that private schools generally provide a superior quality of education to state schools, as the resources available to private schools are much higher than their tax-payer funded counterparts (some independent boarding schools cost around £30,000 per year, per child). Furthermore, sending one’s children to private school is a safe investment in their future: Professor Green cited statistics showing that the earning potential of privately schooled students is raised by 35% (for men) and 20% (for women). These facts explain why, as Professor Green put it, there is an ‘enormous demand’ for private schooling: demand that is rising, rather than falling.  Finally, Mr Coughlan pointed out that the number foreign children attending British private schools is growing. This indicates that globalisation is favouring such schools, perhaps because they offer a world­class education and are therefore competitive on a global market.

Mr Coughlan suggested that ‘fragile economic times’ represent a risk for independent schools. But this was unconvincing, as both propositions – that the economic times are fragile, and that fragile economic times would present a serious risk to private schools – were advanced without argument. And both could well be challenged. First, it could be argued that our economy is not fragile, or at least not fragile enough to present a risk to private schools. For example, the UK’s GDP grew by 1.5% in 2017 and is predicted to grow by a similar amount in 2018. Second, it could be argued that even a very fragile economy would not put private schools at serious risk, as independent education survived the 2008 recession.

What of the political risks? Mr Coughlan claimed that ‘politically, their position is safer than it has been for many years’. The reason, he explained, is that Britain is a ‘pro-choice’ society, where parents have a right to choose how to educate their children as part of their lifestyle. Politically, therefore, there is little motivation to abolish private schools or make them illegal, as this would restrict citizens’ choice. But what of other policy options available to the government, that do not amount to abolition? For example, the government could force up the cost of independent education by removing the charitable status of private schools, or by instating VAT on the transaction. Coughlan’s comment does not address the political viability of this option, since it would not violate the right to choose how to educate one’s children.

Given that Britain is a democracy, whether the government will decide to enact a handicapping policy of this kind depends on whether private schooling is an issue of concern for the public. The panellists agreed that it is not. Dr Kynaston used the Labour party manifesto as an example: it devoted only one sentence to the issue. Professor Green further explained that this may be due to more pressing concerns, such as Brexit. Therefore, the consensus was that the level of political risk to private schools was low, at least in the short term. Dr Kynaston expressed his surprise at the ‘lack of traction’ of the issue – that is, of the lack of any serious political movement to enact anti-private school policy, but we might reply that the issue will only gain traction once we are clear on what such a policy would achieve. Remember, at stake is the degree of inequality in the UK’s education system. What kind of policy directed at private schools resolve this injustice? Would it be negative in nature? This leads us on to the follow-up-question asked of the panellists.

What can we do to reduce the achievement gap between the independent and state education?

Green categorised two kinds of policies to reduce inequality in education. The first I have already mentioned, which is to disadvantage private schools by forcing a price-hike; to ‘put a spanner in the works’ of the independent sector, in Professor Green’s words. He indicated that this may not be effective or viable. It is overtly negative, for one, and politically unattractive as a result.  Another risk of raising the cost of private education, as Dr Wyporska pointed out, is to promote segregation in the state sector. Segregation arises because a state school with a strong reputation drives demand for housing in the school’s catchment area – the geographical area from which the school’s pupils are drawn. This prices out poorer families, and Dr Wyporska explained that many of these families  are of a minority ethnic group. The best schools become the reserve of the wealthy and white, institutionalising segregation. Raising the cost of private education excludes the middle classes, who then drive demand for housing in the catchment areas of the better state schools. Thus, Professor Green proposed that we should pursue a second, more positive type of strategy – one in which we seek to integrate private schools into the state system.

Mr Coughlan warned that the government is obliged to respect the right of parents to choose how to educate their children. In response, Dr Kynaston argued that that leaves the problem of the privilege of wealth, entrenched by the inequalities in the education system, unresolved. Dr Wyporska echoed these worries when reciting statistics about the domination of privately educated people in our political systems and institutions, such as the media and the legal system. Enacted properly, however, a strategy that sought to integrate the private sector into the state sector could protect choice whilst also reducing the inequalities and entrenched privilege vexing Dr Kynaston and Dr Wyporska. Thus, by agreeing to Professor Green’s proposal, we may be able to appease all the panellists. But the question that remains: what shape would such an integrative policy take? Professor Green admitted that more work need to be done if we want to answer this question adequately.

Higher Education

How should we fund higher education?

Due to time constraints, the debate of this topic was brief. However, two important and thought-provoking points of discussion were raised.

Mr Coughlan initially argued that ‘more people go to university than ever before, which is a good thing’. Dr Wyporska countered this assumption: why it is a good thing for over 50% of our school leavers to go on to higher education, particularly given the huge over-representation of academic degrees at university level, compared to vocational study? A critical assessment of this assumption is in order, as it may be that neither the student nor the state should always be willing to pay the cost of further academic study. Furthermore, Dr Wyporska suggested that the government ought to ensure that a much greater variety of higher education is available, especially practical skills-based training. According to Dr Wyporska, there is an argument to be made that less people should study academic degrees.

If Dr Wyporska is right, we ought instead to ask why students are paying £9,000 a year for degrees that may not be worth that money. One reason is the prevalence of the assumption mentioned above, that it is good to go on to university after school, and the implication that not getting a degree is bad. I suspect that it is quite common for school-leavers to go on to university because they feel they are supposed to do so, without a proper cost-benefit analysis. But another possible reason is that school-leavers do not fully appreciate the cost, since it is not paid upfront. Thus, Coughlan argued that the student loan system should be re-packaged as a graduate tax. This is practically what it is for most graduates like myself. The cost of higher education is more apparent as being liable to a %9 income tax if we earn more than £21,000 a year, rather than as a loan which we must eventually repay. Such, at least, is the idea.

I believe that the suggestions of the panellists are pressing and deserve attention. We need to assess the value of a degree, and how its cost is presented to school-leavers. And we need to address the imbalance between academic and vocational opportunities available to students. Excellent themes, I would suggest, for the policy writers at KTT’s Education Centre to think about.

Bertram O’Brien is a postgraduate student in Philosophy at King’s College London. He previously completed a BA degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at The Queen’s College, Oxford University. He is currently ambassador on Campus for JobLab.

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