Category: Education

On the UCU strikes

Before I get down to it, I’d like to get one thing out of the way: as it happens I am against (pretty much) all forms of education cuts, lecturer pensions included.

What this rant (and there is no point in pretending this is anything but) is against, is the way in which the protests are going ahead.

Firstly, the striking itself. I know that in some instances, it can be seen as the only option. I’m not going to discuss striking in general here, because I haven’t the energy. But I will say that, as a student, I am not happy with the UCU strike. My feelings are that I get few enough contact hours with my lecturers and tutors as it is. It happens to be my bad luck that most of these are on a Thursday. As a result, even though it isn’t all my lecturers that are striking, I have lost a significant amount of contact time. Aside from the fact that I am paying large sums of money for my education – the proportion of which pays for the lecture I am missing today, I will not see again, incidentally – some of the content that I am being taught is already too condensed to be of real value. As a result of today’s strikes, those lecturers who are taking action have now said that they will incorporate the material for this week into next week’s lecture. To those who would say that this is the point – that without these losses the value of lecturers etc. wouldn’t be appreciated – I sincerely hope you are speaking for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, and do not genuinely believe this to be the case. I’m not the one cutting the spending for education, and neither are any of the rest of the student body. Why are we seemingly the only ones to suffer in this strike? Why does my education have to suffer as a result of this?

My other strike-related concern isn’t with this strike in particular, but with picket lines in general. I abhor them. I fully appreciate that a show of support is necessary in any cause, and I have no problems with people standing around with placards and chanting. My issue (and I realise that this is something that happens with varying degrees from group to group) comes when that group forms a coherent line, with the express purpose of forcing people to make a point of walking through them – i.e. crossing the picket line. There are times where one needs to be on the other side of the line, regardless of how they feel about the cause.
As a for instance: at my university there is a picket line around one of the campuses. Students (I presume others are being stopped as well, that would seem logical, but am only hearing of this happening to students thus far) are being stopped and interrogated as to their intentions. The people in the picket line are then ‘discouraging’ them from entering the building. Put aside the fact (once again) that students have nothing to do with the cuts, and that if they are going to attend a lecture it is because the lecturer is not part of the union that is striking and therefore has nothing to do with the action, and the fact that despite all this striking students still need to keep up with their education or they are the ones that will be penalised, it should not be the case that people should be made to feel guilty about actions that are well beyond their control.

I could go on and on (I’m in one of those moods) but whatever else I would say would either unconstructive, to the point of nullifying the rest of this entry, or is material that would do better in another piece of writing altogether (for example, I don’t feel I’ve put my point about contact hours and the value of education across very well – that is something that really warrants its own piece).

At any rate, I have a lecture to go to.

Until next time.


On the subject of free University education: a (poorly written) Economics essay.

FOREWORD: I had to write a piece of non-assessed coursework for one of my Economics modules last semester. In lieu of me actually writing anything original for this blog, I’m just going to post it. (I’d promise to try harder with this blog, but we all know that however well intentioned the statement would be, I’d almost certain fail to actually do it.) I started late and didn’t properly plan it. Consequently, it isn’t in what I would consider my usual writing style. Also the conclusion (if that’s what it could be called) reads horribly. Lastly, there was a limit of 1,000 words (which I think I overran anyway), so I haven’t developed any of the points as I’d have liked. I have tweaked it for here, purely in the sense that it reads a little more ‘bloggy’ now, and also some of the economics terms have a little explanation – something that took all of 10 minutes. I was going to expand it and make it a more substantial piece of writing, but I’ve been sitting on it for nearly a month now and haven’t. I guess I just as well post it as is. In any case, this foreword is rapidly becoming longer than the piece itself. Enjoy.

The question: “Critically evalutate the statement ‘University fees should not be abolished’”

The subject of university tuition fees – and who should pay them – is one of the most contentious issues in contemporary politics, and as such is a very important economic problem. While the question is usually presented as ‘should fees be abolished’, it could perhaps be more accurately posed as ‘who should pay for them’. Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch, so while abolishing tuition fees will mean the students will not have to pay, the cost of running the universities will have to be passed on to someone else.

Those on the political right tend to advocate putting that cost firmly in the laps of the students. There are various different arguments for subsidies and bursaries, and different ideas on when the payments should be made, but the bulk of the right-wing voices agree that the cost should, ultimately, be paid by the student. By contrast, those politically left-wing tend to be of the opinion that university education should be equally available to all and, as such, should therefore be free for students. As with any worthwhile debate, both sides have merit.

Perhaps one of the most common arguments for providing free access to university is that, in the economic long-term, it will create a more educated – and thus more efficient – workforce. A higher graduate population is referred to as an increase in ‘human capital’, which is cited as the “most fundamental source of economic growth”. Therefore the more people we have going to university (something that could be achieved by lowering, or indeed abolishing tuition fees), the greater our economic success. Similarly, if students do not have the personal expenditure attached to a degree – be it at point of entry or further down the line – then they will be in a much more financially secure position. This greater spending power could also benefit the level of GDP.

However, much of the debate centres on who will pay for this ‘free’ education. The counter argument is that, for university education to be free, the government must pay for it. No private firm would fund ‘free’ universities for the simple reason that there would be no profit. You don’t need a degree in Accounting and Finance to realise that a business that makes no profit is a poor one. [that’s what I meant when I said I’d added things to make it more ‘bloggy’ – worth it, wouldn’t you say?] In other words, to provide free university, taxes must rise. As tax levels rise, consumers’ Marginal Propensity to Consume is lowered, due to a fall in their disposable income. This, if not coupled by a proportionate rise in Government Spending, will cause GDP to fall. While one could argue that the whole point of raising taxes would be to fund the universities, and this in turn would be reflected in the government spending, the increase is not always a proportionate one.

Another argument against making the government (and thus, by proxy, the taxpayer) fund universities, is that certain sectors of society would pay for a service that they would not use. Conversely, those who pay lower levels of tax (or none, depending on how the system was set up) could benefit from the abolition of fees and give their children university education by free-riding.

Education is used as a signal to employers. So-called ‘high-ability’ individuals (i.e. those who went to higher education) are selected by employers because they have shown the ability to pick up new skills and are thus more desirable. This distinguishes them from ‘low-ability’ individuals, who have no higher qualifications. From an employer’s point of view, having a more skilled workforce can improve productivity and thus increase marginal revenue.

It should be noted however, that this increase productivity will be countered, at least in part, by the ‘high-ability’ workers demanding higher pay. These workers will only take the job if the pay they receive as a result of having the degree (i.e. the difference between their pay and that of a low-ability worker) is higher than the initial cost of the degree itself.

With this in mind, University will only become a sensible option if the average salary of a post-degree job is higher than that of a non-degree job plus the expenses involved in applying to university. In addition to this, the employer will only pay the higher salary as long as such ‘high-ability’ workers are in comparatively low supply. Imagining a scenario where university becomes free, there will be a high incentive for workers to go through higher education and in so doing get a higher paying job. In the long run however, if a large enough portion of the workforce obtains a degree, then firms will no longer have to pay ‘high-ability’ workers considerably more than ‘low-ability’ workers, as the supply of the former will increase in comparison to the later. Assuming ceteris paribus [A Latin phrase sometimes used to mean ‘all other factors held constant’. Its something I manage to work into all my economics essays, mostly because it makes me feel clever], the price of a graduate worker will drop.

Employers have two choices. Either they can pay the ‘low-ability’ workers less than the ‘high-ability’ ones, or they can pay them both the same (i.e. an average). ‘High-ability’ workers will, by their nature, expect a higher wage and, while their numbers are comparatively low, the company is fine with doing this.

Imagine, for example, a firm where non-graduates earn £20k a year and graduates earn £40k. If the firm hires 10 people, 2 of whom are graduates, then the firm’s labour costs are:

(£20k x 8 low ability workers) + (£40k x 2 high ability workers) = £240k

The firms other choice, as mentioned above, is to pay both sets of workers the same – in this case £30k. If they choose to do this their labour costs are:

£30k x 10 workers = £300k

Given that £300k is more than £240k [it definitely is – I triple checked], it is within the firm’s interest to pay the two sets of workers differently.

However, this changes once the proportion of graduates in the firm increases. Imagine the 10-man firm now has 8 graduates, and 2 non-graduates. With the two-tier wage system, the labour costs are:

(£20k x 2 low ability workers) + (£40k x 8 high ability workers) = £360k

Whereas if the firm adopted the ‘average wage’ approach, their labour costs would only be £300k. Clearly, the firm will want to keep the labour costs down, so graduates and non-graduates will receive the same wage. If this is the case, going to university is of no benefit (we are of course assuming here that getting a job is the only benefit that university gives).

With this in mind, allowing all individuals access to university may not be the best thing for the economy. In the long run it could, somewhat paradoxically, lead to fewer individuals going – particularly if there are no auxiliary benefits to going – even if it is free. The economy would then suffer due to a lack of ‘high-ability’ workers. Furthermore, while the money used to fund the schools could be generated via tax, the economy could suffer through the decrease in consumers’ disposable income.

In summary, while the prospect of free university education for all seems both noble and sensible from a moral standpoint, from an economic one it seems less so. While an educated workforce is no-doubt beneficial to the economy, having too many skilled workers can in fact be a detriment. At best, higher taxes could cause a slowing-down of consumer spending. At worst, the over-population of skilled workers could lead to the eventual realisation that a university degree is of no benefit, followed subsequently by the loss of all skilled workers – either in the short to medium term through emigration, or in the long term through the lack of new university students.


Until next time


On my view of votes at 16

There has been a bit of stuff in the press about campaigns to bring the voting age down from 18 to 16, and I thought I’d chuck in my two cents. I haven’t done any special background reading for this, neither have I looked up any figures for things (although there are some statistics that I have taken from a recent politics lecture I had, and some recent news stories that have caught my eye). In short, this is just going to be me writing for the sake of it (business as usual then…). At some point I may come back to this and write it properly, but for the meantime I will just write it as it comes. Enjoy.

I think that there are a lot of issues that need to be considered when answering the question of whether 16 year olds should be allowed to vote in elections. If you were to ask me the question right here and now, my answer would be a resounding ‘no’. However, that is not to say that I don’t think that 16 year olds should be denied the right to vote, given the right circumstances. There are a lot of things that at present our society does not equip a 16 year old to do, and voting is one of them.

Incidentally, to all you who say ‘well if they are allowed to fight and die for our country at 16, then they should be allowed to vote’, I applaud your reasoning. However I don’t think that children – for that is what 16 year olds are – should be allowed to fight or die for their country at all. So while I agree with you that one without the other seems in some ways ridiculous, the voting age – in this case – is not the thing that I would change.

Any of you who have read my previous posts may be familiar with my view that there is not enough political education in schooling. This is essentially my argument for ‘votes at 16’ issue. I hear people slamming ‘young people’ for not taking an interest in politics, or for not understanding the way that the system works. But whose fault is that? How can you expect them to understand something that they are not taught? Can you really expect them to care about something that they have no direct exposure to? Obviously, I’m not saying that teaching 16 year olds about how political systems work will suddenly make them all want to suddenly throng to their nearest polling station. But equally, I don’t see how lowering the voting age will benefit anybody if no other measures are taken.

An interesting side point – a recent survey conducted by The Children’s Society showed that 30% of 11 to 25 year olds would back Stephen Fry as Prime Minister, compared to only 21% who would choose one of the current political party leaders (a link to the press report here). Endearing and humorous though this statistic may be, I think it highlights the fact that young people are, at least at present, not capable of making such a choice. Of course there are several things that we do not know about the study, for example the weighting of the ages; how many of those surveyed were 11 and how many were 25, there is after all a considerable difference between the two. Also the wording of the question is not known to us, and would have a bearing on the answer of even the most politically-savvy 25 year old, let alone that of an 11 year old who goes to bed listening to the Harry Potter audio tapes.

I think that political education would help those over 18 as well. In a 2008 Audit, people were asked whether they intended to vote in the next general election. Of the entire group surveyed, only about half express an intention to do so. And of the 18 – 24 year olds, the figure was 23%.

Before this digresses into yet another post focusing primarily on the need for greater political education for our youth, I shall return more directly to the question at hand.

I don’t think that 16 year olds are incapable of making more ‘mature’ decisions. I know a number of young people who could not be further from the (somewhat middle-class) stereotype, and I would have no problem with allowing kids like that to have a say in the running of their government. Conversely I know several older people who have literally no interest in political happenings and, if they were the kind of people who wanted to exercise their constitutional right to vote, would do so based on the most arbitrary of criteria. My point is that I don’t believe that age is a suitable measure to base someone’s voting rights on. The only problem with this (and it is one I have remarked on before, whether here or not I can’t remember) is that I realise that I am two points away from condoning a form of voting elitism, completely destroying the point of our democracy. This, in turn, is rapidly leading me down the path of suggesting some form of aristocracy or dictatorship of some kind. The liberal in me doesn’t like that, and so, on that note, I think it probably best to call an end to this particular musing for the time being.

I realise I have not reached an actual conclusion (which isn’t unheard of, granted), so I shall summarise my views very briefly.

In short, I don’t believe that, given the situation as it stands, the majority of 16 year olds have the knowledge or the maturity to vote. That said, I also don’t believe that this is something that shouldn’t be – or can’t be – changed. Some form of political education earlier on in their academic lives (possibly GCSE age?) would put our nation’s young adults in a much more informed position. Further to this, I also think that too high a proportion of 18+ year olds – who are obviously entitled to vote – suffer a similar lack of knowledge in political affairs. Once again, a lack of political education is to blame for this. Thoughts of having a form of ‘voting eligibility’ questionnaire aside, I think that if 16 year olds are given the tools to make informed decisions (i.e. education), and they are willing to do so, then I see no reason why they should be denied that right. As I have said before, I know a number of 16-18 year olds who I would trust with political decisions far more than some 18+ year olds.

Having just read that back, I find it interesting that I seem to have adopted the “education, education, education” mantra of a certain well-known political entity. I’m not really sure how I feel about that…

Until next time.


On Facebook and its role in Society

There’s a story doing the rounds recently about a Facebook group complaining about a recent A-level Biology exam. As I understand it, AQA (and, as has later surfaced, OCR) have produced exam papers, only for the students to find that they were being tested on things that were not in the syllabus. In other words, they had no realistic chance of getting the questions right, given the things that they were taught.

I know of a few students doing A-level Biology and, as far as those of them that I have spoken to are concerned, this appears to be accurate. It particularly worries some students who wish to go into medicine, or some of the more demanding universities (i.e. Oxbridge), and as such are heavily penalised for any blemishes on their academic record. I could go of on a tangent on how I feel about that, but I won’t. Instead, I want to muse on how much of an influence social networking sites – and in particular Facebook – have changed the way we work.

Even a few years ago, if an event such as (what I am catchingly going to term) the A-level Biology Exam incident happened, it would take nothing short of a lorry full of angry letters from not only the students, but probably (I would even say likely) their parents, complaining about how unfair the situation was. Even then I would gamble a fair amount of money that nothing major would be done about it.

But what has happened here far surpassed all of that. With the ease and rapidity of something like Facebook, within hours of the students sitting the exam there was a group expressing their views on it already amassing a large number of members. Again, there isn’t much that such a group could realistically do except lament. But we’ve all seen it before – countless numbers of online petitions all revolving around a Facebook group. Some of them actually work, and they do so because, at the end of the day, they show that a number of people – a specific number of people – all share a common view. And because it’s an online canvas, there is a reasonably good cross-section of people involved (things like interviewer bias don’t play a massive role).

And sometimes, when some kind of critical mass is reached (as in the case of the A-level Biology Exam incident), our old friend the media catches wind of the story and runs with it. This in turn draws more attention to the group, who might then get more members. More importantly however, because the media has their noses firmly wedged in, the exam boards themselves are now forced to address the issue. As a result of this, both AQA and OCR have been contacted by various organisations – news and otherwise – and now have to look into the matter.

Whether or not anything will be done for the students remains to be seen. While I hope, for the sake of those who sat the exam, some form of resolution is reached, it is entirely possible that the exam boards will find someway of ignoring it – something that will be made infinitely easier for them once the media gets bored of the story.

My point however, is that while most people see Facebook as simply a way to substitute work for FarmVille, it can actually be immensely beneficial to certain causes. Social networking in general is an incredibly powerful tool, and I think sometimes we forget that.

Until next time.