A premium for public service

10th October 1997, 1:00am
James Conroy


A premium for public service

James Conroy looks at how student fees can beturned to advantage

Stemming from the doctrine of the free market, the deep-seated belief that employment in the public sector is inferior to that in the private continues under Labour. Applications for teacher education courses slump at the first sign of an economic upturn. Teaching along with other public sector occupations is a second best, an insurance policy in case school or degree qualification prove inadequate in the "real" job market. There is a publicly proclaimed desire to have more traffic between the two sectors. Lord Simon's appointment as a minister was an early sign under Labour. But the traffic is likely to be one way, with hard-nosed commercial expertise thought necessary for the public sector but with no need in industry or commerce to draw on the skills of the public service since these are held to be inferior.

Though having worked in both sectors myself it has never been evident to me that private concerns are any more efficiently or intelligently managed. For the sake of argument let us assume this superiority and acknowledge therefore that the challenge for government is to create a genuine commerce between the two. At the moment, if a young graduate spends more than a couple of years working as a teacher the likelihood that heshe will be employed outside education is fairly remote. It is also doubtful that the range of poorly funded, short-term exchange programmes between education and industry will provide a basis for a genuine partnership or cross-sector fertilisation which could contribute to our corporate social well-being.

Indeed most of the education-industry initiatives of the past 18 years have been damaging to both sides. At the most general level they have blinded politicians, industrialists and educators to the fact that more radical and creative solutions need to be found to our common challenges. Our responses need to respect the very great differences of purpose between the public and private while acknowledging their social and economic symbiosis.

I, like many of my contemporaries, benefited from free college and university education, It was, in a sense, both a gift and an investment. The gift was and continues to be received graciously and the investment, I hope, has been returned. As a beneficiary of free university education I was initially bitterly disappointed by the recent decision to charge fees to undergraduates. On the other hand as an academic in higher education I am only too well aware of the enormous constraints placed on universities and colleges by two decades of underfunding and constant growth in demand. As a former banker, I am conscious that taxpayers are not prepared to see the total tax burden rise inexorably.

Leaving aside the important questions about the way in which public money has been spent, not infrequently by private organisations, we continue to be left with a conundrum. If money is spent by the state on my education my education is deemed "free". If I or my parents pay for it, it is not "free".

This is illusory since my parents and possibly myself pay for it whether through taxation or fees. The distinction is really only one about period and cost of repayment and who benefits. With the government ruminating on a private sector repayment system the likelihood is that the savings due to public purse and private pocket may well prove illusory in any event. The illusion may turn out to be even more stark than might be initially imagined if these plans act against the notion that higher education is in itself an important social and economic good.

Having somewhat churlishly given succour to these and similar thoughts for a couple of weeks I let them give way to a more positive approach in the attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. It is generally true that graduates get more highly paid employment than non-graduates; it is also true that many of them enjoy substantial salaries and perks at the height of their careers. For this reason, now may be the time to offer a change in the relationship between public and private using student fee repayments as a mechanism for a new contract between government and those who choose actively to serve the public sector in their choice of career. If we wish to encourage our best and brightest to work in the public services and at the same time stimulate meaningful traffic between public and private than the government should offer to waive fee repayments for those who take up a public sector post for a minimum of five years after graduation.

After that they would be free to take up employment wherever they choose with no further penalty. In this way it may well be possible to encourage young women and men with ability and energy to spend some of their time in pursuit of the common good. It might also help establish the once widely held belief that there is indeed such a thing as society and that it is desirable that we serve each other within it. Some will argue that young graduates will become victims of the public sector culture and that private employers will not be interested in them after five years. Others will point out that many companies prefer to employ "fresh" graduates so that they can establish the corporate mindset while their new recruits are still at an impressionable stage. Yet others will suggest that the likely sums for fee and living expense repayments are so small in comparison to the likely rewards of choosing a private sector career that young graduates of sufficient calibre will be able to resist the temptation to work in the public sector.

Let me take these objections one at a time. It could be reasonably argued that if directors and managers of medium sized and large companies in the private sector were to support such a move then the culture could be changed at no cost to companies. They would wish to see some tangible benefits in return for their support. Undoubtedly there are advantages in the cultivation of experience in public service in an economic culture where services are increasingly important. There should also be related benefits in terms of people management though both of these may require further concomitant modifications in public sector attitudes.

There will always be a few companies who require youth and freshness for their corporate culture but this sits ill with the widely accepted view that there are no jobs for life inside or outside the public services. We are frequently informed by a variety of right and left-wing think-tanks, such as the Centre for Policy Studies or Demos, that we must develop portfolios of competencies. Further, if there are to be increased public-private partnership in capital and service delivery projects than dual experience can only be an advantage.

Third, in the early stages of employment public sector pay compares reasonably well with that in the private sector; the gap between a beginning teacher, policeman or social worker and their counterparts in industry is not great and indeed in some areas may well be reversed. It is only as people progress through their career that the differences become marked. It may therefore be a significant advantage to young graduates trying to establish themselves with a home and the accoutrements of an independent life.

The current rethink in funding offers the government a significant opportunity to change our politico-economic culture, to reshape the way we look at the relationship between employment and the community, to valorise those who still see that communal service retains an important place despite the ravages of neo-liberal economics and to do so while avoiding Treasury strictures.

James Conroy is director of religious education and pastoral care at St Andrew's College and treasurer of the Values Education Council for the UK.

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