Libertarian Tory blogger Thomas Byrne makes some arguments recently on his blog, then debated on Twitter, about the desirability or not of state funding of University.

I don’t ever do this, but as a fellow Conservative, I am sure he won’t have a problem with a spot of forensic work on his blog post.  I’m in Blue, his original text at issue is in white.  I may develop this over time

Let the free market take over entirely, and there will be no such thing as a worthless degree: if someone has to pay the full cost of their studies, you better believe they’re only going to do it if they think it’s a good use of the money. Questions like “is media studies a proper degree” will simply disappear – if it’s valued enough, either by employers or by students who are sufficiently motivated to want to learn the subject, then it’s a proper degree.

This is a worrying idea, as it reduces the concept of education to the financial value of the degree itself.  This relies on a perfect market, a very responsive market and one with very little lag.  Unfortunately, the job market, the R&D market and the education market (which I believe it properly is) are not known for their flexibility, their speed of operation or their scientific approach.  Little leads me to believe that this would change with the abolition of state university financing.

I’m not being a commie here, but think about it: the needs of industry are a primary concern, and under a system of tertiary education not funded at least partially as an obligation through general taxation, a much impoverished and much less diverse university system would result.  If you want universities to be places of private study, a degree factory if you like, the profile of the average graduate would be intensely narrow, boring and uninteresting.  That’s a lot more important than many people think; industry relies on marketing, PR, customer interaction, all of which are high level functions, best delivered by people at degree level or higher.  Who’ll fund those courses, how rare would they be, and what would be the going market rate?

Why actually have univerities at all?  If every industry is required to train its employees, why not simply leave it up to them to establish their own training academies?  Of course, we know the reason why that would fail:  the cost of setting up training academies to bring people to degree level, or even more specialised levels, is massively expensive, seriously specialised and densely inefficient.  Industry wants a base of highly trained candidates for advanced recruitment, and relies on a system of univerities to produce good raw material for their own development and recruitment channels.

Of course, we all know that, as well as the highly skilled operatives required in industry to be trained to a high level, business thrives on human contact.  Humanities degrees are not in themselves valuable financially per se, but they are demanded by industry throughout their operations. Similarly, degrees in all sorts of ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects turn out graduates who go on to decidedly non Mickey Mouse careers.

Then let’s look at the issue of funding of courses:  I’m all for business paying more into education and the taxpayer paying less.  I’m even supportive of the idea of businesses operating units and even faculties in Universities.  But where’s the benefit to the taxpayer of funding for universities being shifted to the student (who won’t be able to afford it anyway) or to industry (who will argue very effectively for tax write-offs).  Surely Thomas appreciates that, of a population of 65M, having 5M in debt or not gaining a third level education would be pretty catastrophic, economically.  Of course, the number of students would decline, slightly, but you’d still be looking at a 4 year cycle of education for those availing, and a 9 year cycle of debt repayment per person.  That’s a cumulative, of course, so at any time over a decade, you could expect to see a debt load increase to dwarf the credit card deficit, each year.

 The only reason the issue of ‘mickey taxpaying public feel resentful at having to fund 3 years of someone dossing about learning about Golf Management (or whatever). Get rid of the fact that taxpayers are the ones supporting these degrees, and I think the problem will be as uncontroversial as when someone else buys your least favourite flavour of crisps.

The main problem is, essentially, that education is like all other economic goods – if you artificially reduce the price below the true market value and keep the supply constant (as state intervention clearly does), the result is a massively increased demand where the benefits don’t reflect the real costs. This problem is exacerbated in the market for education, because education is used (as other goods tend not to be) as a signalling device to employers: if everyone else in the economy has a higher level of education than is otherwise viable, you have to get it too in order to get a job – and so demand is higher again than it should be. Which, of course, translates into more government spending, wasting scarce resources.

That’s alright, as it goes, but if the UK were to systematically follow the plan to withdraw state funding, R&D would simply leave the UK.  Students wouldn’t be able to afford it without massively increased loans and debts, the poorest would simply opt out of third level education (which is extremely inefficient in terms of use of talent as a raw resource) and we’d still have a massively underfunded system, because nothing Thomas is suggesting would make the UK any more attractive as an education hub or an R&D base.  Quite the opposite.

Returning to my specialisation argument, take chemistry for example. It’s massively more effective to have six lecturers to take a class of 200 to degree level in organic chemistry, then spit out the graduates into an employment market where they have to fend for themselves, than to hire six lecturers to train a large company’s intake of maybe 50 trainees to the same level. You would of course have to do it this way; if a pupil comes in from A-Level Chemistry with potential, they’re still going to need to develop the same base skills before they can be specialised into the company’s operations; the economy of scale of harvesting graduates at an acceptable level are massive here.