Editorial: Browne slips up on return on investment

15th October 2010 at 01:00
"Vince Cable, one of the most powerful people in Lib DEm history, has now taken up being right for the wrong reasons."

The cuddly Liberal Democrats of yore, the ones who were never likely to get a sniff of power except in some West Country local authority, might have been said to have been sometimes wrong for the right reasons: their hearts were in the right place, bless them. Vince Cable, one of the most powerful people in the party's history, has now taken up being right for the wrong reasons.

He was wrong on two points in his speech to Parliament on the Browne review. First he repeated the age-old error that the Labour government wanted half of young people to enter university. They did not: they had a target for 50 per cent to gain a higher qualification of some kind before they were 30. More on this later.

He was also wrong to say he endorsed Browne because it was "progressive". Fees for services are not taxes, and it is anyway beside the point. What matters in this case is affordability for the poor, not whether it is also sufficiently unaffordable for the rich, however much the banker class deserves a bit of a metaphorical slap these days.

There is a strong case that the Coalition, in imposing such eye-watering cuts next week, will be displaying a lack of confidence to invest in Britain's ability to grow its economy out of its deficit trouble. They should think again.

But commentators who stoke up the debt fears of the poor are showing the same lack of confidence in individuals' ability to improve their chances. Rather than waving the bogeyman of pound;30,000 or pound;40,000 debt, they should be asking: do you think you can boost your earnings by five per cent? More?

It matters more that someone on pound;25,000 a year will only pay pound;30 a month - and nothing at all should they fall out of work - than that they will owe pound;30,000 in total. Browne has done a good job of taking the risk out of paying expensive higher education fees.

So in this respect, Mr Cable was probably right to endorse Browne - although one might have thought that someone so celebrated for his economic insight could have predicted that the six-year plan to eliminate tuition fees was destined to failure before the election, and told the electorate so.

What is not really addressed by Lord Browne is how to ensure that students get their return on investment, beyond the chimera of all-knowing careers advisers and the invisible hand of the market.

"Mickey Mouse" degrees may be largely a tabloid fiction in educational terms, but it is true that, for instance, arts degrees at some universities do nothing for future earnings. If students want that education for its own sake, knowing the implications for their earnings and repayments is one thing. But there is a whole system of what we might have to call "lower education" which creates a strong bias in favour of a three-year degree.

It remains to be seen whether some market incentives will be enough to change decades of tradition and expectation. Without a more comprehensive reform of education's whole supply chain, it is hard not to see other invisible hands at work guiding students into an ever-more expensive status quo, to the benefit of some university departments but the detriment of student careers.

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