So, leaving aside the fact that Johann Lamont didn’t actually change policy at the Fabians on Saturday, something the SNP; Newsnet and others seem to be willfully ignoring in their haste to get back on the attack, is even looking at how education funding works in the round a heretical betrayal of some deeply held core principles? I’m going to finish of my degree with a return to philosophy so I thought I’d take what I covered about ethics previously and apply it here but tldr: QTWAIN

Let’s start with some premises:

P1. Education is a public good – society as a whole benefits from an educated populace.

P2. Education is a right – everybody has a right to an appropriate level of education (this is currently universal, compulsory and free up to 16).

Given P1 and P2 it seems both sensible and ethically correct that there should be state funding for further and higher education. In fact, given those, it seems the logical position is to provide as much education as possible for everybody for as long as they want.

Sadly, we must also live with a further premise:

P3. Being in full time education limits current earning potential

One of the reasons I’m studying at the OU is because it means I don’t have to compromise work – there isn’t a great deal of part time work out there for computer programmers. For other people, in other circumstances to me, it makes sense for them to study full-time.

P4. Some people do not have sufficient support to study on part-time earnings

Being at university incurs living costs such as rent, food, clothes, transport as well as books and other materials. While some people may receive support from family, partners etc this is not always possible or sufficient.

Given premises P1-4 we should offer free education to all along with sufficient support to ensure people have a decent standard of living while doing so, perhaps topped up with the sort of part-time, insecure, low wage work generally available to them.

Speaking of money, let’s add a final premise to make this more realistic:

P5. Education budgets are tightly constrained.

This reflects the reality there there is not, unfortunately, an especially large pot of money available. Personally, I’d love to bring back the grant and offer free PhDs to everyone who wanted to do one and was deemed capable. That isn’t on offer from anyone AFAIK, not Labour, not the SNP, not even the Greens.

Given those premises, how can we judge education funding policy? I would argue that P1 and P2 taken together suggest the following corollary:

C1. the greatest number of people who are able to benefit from education are able to do so.

Since education is a public good society benefits and since education is a right society has an obligation to provide it as best it can (rights often come into conflict, so this is often a less than straightforward issue).

Given C1, let us consider some possible schemes that divvy up £1,000,000 (P5) in the budget different ways, with each course costing £10k to deliver £5k of living costs (P3 and P4) and a population of eligible students who would benefit from education and want to do so. 20 will go to university even if they have to pay full fees and full costs (eg. the rich), 100 will go to university if they can get loans to defer fees and costs and 100 will only go to university if they can pay no fees and get help with costs.

S1. No state funding for university education.

This is an extreme example of the situation in the US where everything is paid for the by student through loans or philanthropic grants, bursaries, scholarships etc. Quite clearly violates P1 and P2, let’s move on.

S2. Subsidised loans for fees and living costs costing govt 2% per annum

This is analogous to the situation in England & Wales at the moment. Students on the vast majority of courses pay for the whole of their tuition and are given access to subsidised loans and some bursaries to help defer living costs.  It doesn’t quite violate P1 or P2 as there is some attempt at helping, there’s enough money to provide 3333 places but on this model only 120 people want to go. The other 100 are priced out by the system

S3. State funding for course fees, loans for living costs at 2% per annum

This is close to the situation in Scotland. Scottish students do not pay tuition fees and are given subsidised loans to help defer living costs. On this model there are 99 places available, so 31 people who want to go to university are excluded and 100 who would benefit think it’s “not for them”.

S4. Fees for those willing to pay them, subsidised loans living costs for the rest

This is an optimised version of the above – the 20 students who would be willing & able to pay for their education in totality fund another 20 places for a total of 118 and so only 12 who want to take out loans to go to university are excluded and the other 100 are still left out in the cold on princple. Better, but obviously room for improvement.

S5. Full fees and costs for those willing to pay them, subsidised loans for fees and support for those who will go if they can get them and full support for the others on a round robin basis.

This is a perfectly spherical education system operating in a frictionless vacuum with an omniscient and omni-benevolent God means testing system. 20 people go to university and cost the state nothing. There’s £1,000,000 to divvy up between the 100 who require loans and 100 who require full support. Apportioning the funding on a round robin basis to one member of each support-requiring group results in there being 78 places. This is fewer than the 119 above however everybody who could benefit from education wants to.

S6. Full fees and costs for those willing to pay them, subsidised loans for all who would take them and the rest of the budget allocated to full support.

Adjusting S5 to provide the maximum number of places by apportioning funding first to those who only require loans and then to those who require full support yields 184 places with nobody deterred from going on the basis of cost but some of those who most require support excluded due to insufficient funds. That’s harsh, and I’d stress I’m not advocating this or any of the other schemes as an actual policy, but it does provide the greatest number of places and illustrate my fundamental point: an appropriately formulated policy can meet premises P1 and P2 given the constraints of P3 and P4.

Rather than having a free for all accusing me of being a member of the Labour party (hiya R.G) I’d ask folk to limit themselves to challenging the premises, the corollary I assert flows from them and the way they’re applied to the scenarios presented. Egregious errors in my calculations will also be accepted, albeit grudgingly.

That’s really all a long winded way of saying that education funding is a complex, nuanced area with a lot of things to consider when formulating policy. A simplistic stance of “no tuition fees” without considering the affect that has on access and inclusion is not really a principle unless you’re prepared to prioritise platonic characteristics of your system over those characteristics as the inevitably imperfect education system is actually implemented.

The spreadsheet used to calculate the above examples is available here (Edit: now in Excel format). Please download it, it will mean you’re even more tedious than I am and I’d really appreciate that.