Saturday, April 07, 2007

Universal grants: the wrong solution to the wrong problem

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) have an interesting article titled "Whatever happened to student radicalism?", written by Ben Lewis and Dave Isaacson. While it suffers from the usual "everyone who disagrees with us is right-wing" disease common among socialists and communists, it is worth reading for its analysis of the fractures between the various socialist groups. However, I think their opposition to means-tested grants and the reasons for it are misplaced. Their suggested replacement with universal grants are the wrong solution to the wrong problem, and it is this I wish to mention.

I am opposed to means-tested grants in principle on the basis that education is a right, not a privilege, and that tuition fees and top-up fees are a barrier to that right. However, I find their logic for opposing means-testing to be confusing. If I understand it correctly, it is that means-testing is discriminatory against minority students such as LGBT or black students. I find this a strange argument as means-testing for students is based on the income and assets of one's parents rather than whether the prospective student is gay or black (and if we are to have means-testing, so it should be). Whether someone is gay or black should have nothing to do with how much money they receive. Being black or gay does not make you inherently more or less deserving of a grant than being white or straight. The article claims that means-tested grants also do nothing to address the gap between rich and poor. This is contradictory to discrimination based on being part of a minority.

In fact, addressing the gap between rich and poor is a much higher priority - and more work actually needs to be done addressing educational standards for children from deprived white families than for other ethnic minority groupings, according to a 2006 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (page 21). At 16, as a percentage more white children are not in school or training than any other minority (page 57). Being worried about discrimination against minority groups with means-tested grants is missing the elephant in the room - which is the failure of deprived white children to remain in education. Ending the 10p rate of income tax as the Liberal Democrats propose is one way to help these families - not raising it to 20p as Gordon Brown has proposed in the budget (causing many lower-income families to pay a large increase in tax, unless they will benefit from the working tax credit increase). Making education work might not be a panacea, but it is close.

The socialists' opposition to means-tested grants is flawed. They argue that it discriminates against minorities (which is irrelevant, and in any case, ethnic minorities do not need the support as much). They also argue that it does nothing to address the gap between rich and poor. It does help, but means-tested grants are not supposed to solve the massive problem of failed educational practices in this country, but to help poorer students who want to study get into university. They would be better supporting campaigns to add another tax rate for the highest earners and increasing taxes on large corporations, remove the poorest people from paying income tax altogether, and opposing tax increases for small businesses (and of course to support a fair system of local income tax, rather than the regressive council tax). Means-testing is not an ideal solution, but to replace means-testing with a universal grant without addressing the more serious problem of the failing education system would hit students coming from deprived families the hardest, despite what the CPGB and the other socialist/communist groups claim.


Will said...

Means testing based on parental income discriminates against anyone whose parents aren't prepared to cough up - that might be because they've fallen out with their children (which tends to be the example used for gay kids) or because they don't believe in their children going to higher education (there may be cultural reasons, for example, why parents would approve of their son but not their daughter going to university).

To dish out a limited pot of money fairly, the means testing should be on the individual student, not on their parents. But is that then an incentive not to work while at uni (which perhaps should be discouraged), and a disincentive for parents to give their children (declared) funding? Do you then end up with a universal grant being the only fair method? As long as richer people are paying more tax, it's fair enough that they or their children should receive some of it back.

Tristan said...

Higher Education is not a right.

Its debatable whether education itself is a right, although its certainly something that has such large social gains that social funding up to the end of secondary school is a very good thing.

Sending more people to university has already devalued a university education a lot. I saw this in trying to get a job. A degeree no longer signifies a reasonably rigourous acadmenic education, its just a piece of paper you have to get.

Chris said...

I originally wrote (and then deleted) that perhaps we should re-evaluate whether the government's policy of dramatically increasing the number of people in higher education is workable or practical. I'm not sure it is, but I admit I don't know many of the details surrounding this.

In any case, the failure of the government to sufficiently fund higher education institutes is one of the causes of this. At Manchester, students on arts degrees have very few hours of contact time with lecturers or tutors a week, and they are facing further cuts. Definitely not a rigorous university education.

Will, you are correct to point out that means-testing discriminates against "middle" class families who have fallen out with their children. However, socialists and communists have rarely fought for the rights of the "middle" class before the "working" class - and means-testing is for the benefit of those from more deprived families who would not be able to cough up for their children even if they wanted to.

A universal grant is not a fair method, for the reason that giving money to those who have parents who do cough up means there is less money for students who don't have parents who cough up. There is a finite amount of money available for grants, and the more money that goes to those who do not need it means less is available for those who do.

EthicalInvestmentedinburgh said...

how about a targetted grant based on a students income rather than a parents' income?

Chris said...

That would act as a disincentive for students to get jobs. This is a good debate to have. My gut feeling is that a grant based on student income is a bad idea because jobs, especially summer/easter jobs, give valuable experience. On the other hand, low-paid menial jobs take time away from studies.