Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Obama's Higher Education Misjudgement

I like Barak Obama - I really do.  He mostly seems bright and sincere.  But yesterday I was a bit bemused to hear him say that he wants universities to lower their tuition fees so that “everybody in America can go to college”.  It's the kind of statement that indicates a lack of insight and a lack of sincerity on Obama's part – and I don’t believe those accusations are easily directed at Barak Obama, which makes me think he is engaging in disingenuousness  by vote-mongering to catch the attention of those aspirational Americans who probably feel they are just below the university threshold. 

Let's take the reductio ad absurdum approach and scrap tuition fees altogether, does Obama honestly think that universities could cope with a mass enrolment, 30 or 40 times in excess of the usual number?  I'm guessing not, so why does he imagine lowering the tuition fees will suddenly change the ethos of universities?  It won't. 

But what is the ethos?  Well firstly, the reason student numbers are not higher is not because of the number that cannot afford university - it is because the university capacity extends to a limit.  It does so firstly because university places ought to be sought after, secondly because it is good to have a selection system in which many do not get enrolled, and thirdly because a surfeit of university degrees invokes devaluation on each individual degree in the employment market. 

Here’s another issue; A business that wants a monopoly will keep their prices high, and take a hit on the unsold seats or places.  Theatres are good examples of this - they don't lower their prices nearer the event, and as a consequence they accept empty seats as part of the protocol related to selling high priced seats.  Universities price discriminate according to academic records, cultural background, class and parents' earnings.  John and Jack might both be studying physics - but John could pay 15% more than Jack pays. So while the theatre sells the majority of its seats at full price (save for concessions) and has a few empty ones on the night of the performance, the university fills empty class spaces at lower prices while still charging full prices for those students’ parents that have the means to pay.

Lowering the tuition fees can help some get into college who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford it – but the idea that “everybody in America can go to college” is meaningless on two levels; firstly, as I said, a country in which everyone is a university or college student would bring about devaluation in higher education while at the same time reducing the employment market for the young.  And secondly, universities and colleges are not built with a limitless capacity – they are built with, give or take a few, the capacity for just about the sort of numbers that do currently wish to enrol in higher education. 

I said that the statement “everybody in America can go to college” is meaningless on the two main levels. It is meaningful on one level, though; it’s exactly the kind of thing politicians love to say, because it is exactly the kind of thing that the electorate likes to hear.