All 10 entries tagged Education

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March 15, 2006

School choice documentary online

In this post, I mentioned a John Stossel programme on public schools and the potential gains to be had from allowing greater choice within the system.

Courtesy of YouTube, it’s online here. (Via Heavy Lifting ).


February 15, 2006

Student Union on Tuition Fees

Yesterday’s Warwick Boar briefly touched on union president Brian Duggan’s view of tuition fees.

Students will expect a lot more, because they’re paying a lot more, from their institutions and their unions and we’ll have to be at the forefront of direct representation for students not only to make sure students are getting value for their educations, but to ensure we’re providing the right representations and services, and also making sure we fight fees..The only thing that has been done on fees in the past four years is this leaflet that I’ve made.

That’s fair enough. I hadn’t seen the leaflet he refers to, but there’s some info on tuition fees on the student union website. As regards undergraduate fees for domestic students it says the following

Labour promised not to introduce Top-Up Fees…and then they did. From next year Home Undergrads will pay £3000 a year tuition fees. They will leave Uni with an average debt of £20–25k each. Applications are down across the country; clearly high tuition fees are a barrier to involvement. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds will recieve help, however the system is confusing and offputting, with many students simply not even considering University because of a fear of debt.

Won't the money be useful to Uni's?

We are all being told that Top-Up Fees are necessary if we are to have enough funding in our Uni's for decent facilities and teaching. This is not true! Fees don't cover it. There is a serious funding problem in Higher Education but £3000 per student does not come close to fixing the problem.

Read in full here.

The first paragraph makes a fair point. The prospect of debt will be a deterrent to some groups even if they would be well equipped to make future repayments. Could we encourage teachers to stress the upside potential to such groups? Could short term grants and bursaries help overcome resistance? Who knows; it’s not discussed. The second paragraph appears confused. It admits to a serious funding problem in higher education, but seems thinks that because £3000 fees are insufficient, we should maintain the status quo. Perhaps the author meant the burden should be shifted to taxpayers. Or maybe the benefits of a relatively cheap education far outweigh the benefits of more money and more resources. Again, we’re not told.

Merely saying that ‘Everyone has the right to education that is FREE, FAIR and FUNDED’ doesn’t make it so. The union needs to better explain why a free university education leads to better outcomes than the alternatives. I don’t mean better outcomes for just the students involved. One must consider all the other parties affected: the lecturers, the universities and the taxpayers who never had the benefit of a university education themselves. I know it's not supposed to be a means of getting change, but the union website seems like a perfect place to fully explain the tuition fee stance to those who're unsure; a place to dismiss the notion that students are selfish and unwilling to endure discomfort for long term gain. At present, it just seems lazy.


February 09, 2006

Worker Shortages

Lew Rockwell comments on statements from business groups and politicians about shortages of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Think of how jobs have changed. We have fewer people around today who know how to farm because fewer people are necessary to do the job. More kids than ever are going into computer sciences because of the perception that these fields will be lucrative in the future. In neither case was a government program necessary. People entering the job market find out quickly what is in demand and what isn't and compare that to their own capacity for doing the job.

The reason the whole math and science racket bamboozles us again and again has to do with our own limitations and our perceptions of foreign countries. We think: heck I know nothing of these subjects, so I can believe that there is a shortage! And surely math and science are the keys to just about everything.

Read in full here.

The word ‘shortage’ may be used a little loosely in the media when applied to jobs and skills. Not every instance of lack deserves to be taken seriously. It makes no sense for me to say there’s a shortage of Ferraris merely because my student budget would get me laughed out of a dealership. I’m simply not willing to pay what its worth. If I say there's a shortage of Ferraris it should be qualified with a statement of a) why I don't think they're worth what I'm willing to pay, and/or b) why it is impossible to pay the going rate. Even when the latter is the case, the harm being done must be considered before declaring a crisis or deciding active intervention is needed.

Take the issue of teachers. The DfES recognises the obvious (albeit not instant) solution to shortages, as evidenced by generous training bursaries of up to £7000 and Golden Hellos of up to £5000 for PCSE candidates hoping to teach maths and science. Given that it knows the solution, the government couldn't blame poor quality education in certain areas on a lack of staff if it refuses to go further with it’s recruitment efforts.

If there are strong financial constraints on their ability to do this (beyond obstinacy), like an unwillingness amongst the populace to pay more tax, then claims of shortages are more credible. Here we’d need to accept that teachers in state schools aren’t necessarily going to hold degrees in their teaching field. Lower expertise may be a suitable trade-off for lower wages given the difficulty of the material being taught. Perhaps the expectations of teacher expertise are too high.

That said, I doubt the constraints faced are insurmountable. Sure, you may not be able to hike taxes, but I bet there are reasonable sacrifices to be made within government. Could policymakers genuinely say that education is important, but not important enough to warrant sacrificing other schemes, and cutting salaries in other areas? Such reorganisation is difficult politically, but probably not operationally. Shifts in resource use needn’t be radical to have a beneficial impact. As long as reasonable sacrifices exist, claims that poor education is down to a shortage of skilled staff is inaccurate. Like my Ferrari, policymakers just doesn’t want to pay what good (by its own definition) teachers are worth.


February 07, 2006

Signalling & Alternatives to University

Here Bryan Caplan of Econlib, a supporter of the view that a degree is primarily for signalling desirable traits, discusses the value of a degree. Idea is, you’re valued as a graduate not so much for the knowledge you come away with but because sitting through lectures and jumping through exam/assignment hoops for three years implies you’re reasonably productive and capable of learning. That many of the firms we see on campus don’t require specific degrees suggests this is often true. What I liked was a suggestion by a later commenter

Start up a school that screens for IQ, and basically puts students through hell — difficult topics involving critical thinking, research, teamwork, and long hours, all without any grade inflation. It would be cheaper because you wouldn't necessarily need well-educated professors. That would be extremely powerful signaling. You might not even have to charge tuition — if you could run it cheaply enough.. Also, you might be able to pack four years' worth of standard signaling into two years, and people who only made it through one year would still prove something. If it failed, so does the signaling thesis.

Clearly needs refining, but the idea has some appeal. The assessment days (featuring tests, group exercises, presentations and interviews) used by large employers could be a model. University helps develop workplace skills, but for non-technical jobs I doubt the gain significant enough to warrant not considering an 18 or 19 year old, or that lessons wouldn’t be learned anyway, once in a pressured work environment.

There must be quicker ways of verifying the existence of certain traits in candidates / cheaper ways for candidates to convey their ability. That job prospects aren’t the sole concern of most people is deliberately ignored. Taking this into account together with subsidies to education, it’s understandable why such alternative schemes (run by independent firms or employers themselves) aren’t around.


February 02, 2006

George Monbiot

Just found the blog of journalist George Monibot who I’d heard of before, but didn’t know was a Guardian writer. There’s plenty to agree and disagree with but I like his writing. For something of more universal interest (and in keeping in the theme of wealth & happiness) take a look at this article on choosing a career –

How many times have I heard students about to start work for a corporation claim that they will spend just two or three years earning the money they need, then leave and pursue the career of their choice? How many times have I caught up with those people several years later, to discover that they have acquired a lifestyle, a car and a mortgage to match their salary, and that their initial ideals have faded to the haziest of memories, which they now dismiss as a post-adolescent fantasy? How many times have I watched free people give up their freedom?

So my second piece of career advice echoes the political advice offered by Benjamin Franklin: whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither. People who sell their souls for the promise of a secure job and a secure salary are spat out as soon as they become dispensable. The more loyal to an institution you are, the more exploitable, and ultimately expendable, you become.

Read in full here.


January 30, 2006

Education, Budgets, Patricia Hewitt

In yesterday’s Times Patricia Hewitt wrote a sharp reply to economics correspondent David Smith who had earlier criticised the effectiveness of Labour reforms in various areas. On education, she says the following

He may be almost right to say that 60% of pupils failed to gain at least a C grade in maths or English. The figure is actually 55.7%, which I accept is not good enough. But the same figure was 64.4% in 1997. The biggest improvements have come in primary schools where pupils have had the benefit throughout their education of the extra investment and reforms we have put in. We need to do better still but we are going in the right direction.

The number of 11-year-olds achieving the right standards in English have improved from 65% in 1997 to 79% and in maths from 59% to 75%. It is misleading to criticise the performance of city academies without explaining that they are sited deliberately in the areas of lowest educational performance. Far from “faltering”, they are improving GCSE results three times faster than the national average.

Unfortunately, her letter was published on the same day the Telegraph reported growing deficits in the education sector –

Last night, teaching unions and Conservatives warned that teacher shortages were a renewed risk because head teachers were struggling with debt and complex ring-fenced Government funding. Previous school funding crises – notably in 2000 and 2003 – saw four-day weeks and classes of 90 pupils in the worst-affected areas. They are seen as a significant blot on Mr Blair's record in education.

The latest figures from the DfES, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph, show that state-run nursery schools across England had debts totalling £277,081 in 2004–05. Primaries were £34 million in the red while secondaries were responsible for the lion's share: £86 million.

Taking into account the debt being built up and Brown’s promise to curb public spending post 2008, Blair and Kelly certainly have a mammoth task ahead of them. Nobody expects perfection or instant change, but to say we’re ‘going in the right direction’ seems weak. Hand a few billion pounds to any sensible teenager and she’d probably implement policy that would take the system in the ‘right direction’. That’s not to say total spending should be lower, but consistent failure of budget increases to meet expected standards suggests that there are structural problems to be addressed. One can question the proposals Ruth Kelly has put on the table, but at the very least they're a recognition that cash isn't a cure-all.


January 17, 2006

Education Vouchers

Reason magazine discusses a John Stossel programme on public schools in the US and their performance relative to other countries.

For "Stupid in America," a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. The Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks. The Belgian kids called the American students "stupid."

We didn't pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey's kids have test scores that are above average for America.

The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education.

Read in full here.

The show made the expected points about the homogeneity of public schools, lower incentives to improve poor performance, bureaucratic structures which make firing teachers difficult, etc. It went on to discuss the case in favour of education vouchers.

This case for vouchers isn’t based on dubious claims about the automatic superiority of private solutions. There are many great public schools in the UK; they may even outperform their independent neighbours. However fact remains that some children must endure bad schools. Poor families in bad neighbourhoods can’t afford tuition fees; they can’t afford to move to a better area. They’re stuck. While we have Oxbridge politicians talking about respect, reform and results in schools the pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numerical skills. David Cameron will likely reject the idea because it ‘can’t be sold’ to the public.

A voucher system may not cure all ills, but it would give pupils a choice. Giving control of funds to the pupils themselves would permit access to better schools in other areas, allow the development of new schools and give bad public schools a real incentive to change. That some public schools would be forced to close can only be a good thing. After all, why would parents leave a school that is doing its job? Our goal is not the existence of public schools, but the existence of institutions that prepare children for later life. If those institutions are owned by profit/non-profit firms, churches and mosques, then so be it.

An objection to a universal voucher scheme is that the only new schools to be developed would cater for middle class students, leaving the poor and those with special needs behind in sink schools. I don’t think this is likely and it hasn’t been the experience elsewhere. I’ll link to some info on other countries in another post. In any case, a second-best solution would be to grant vouchers only to these vulnerable groups.

Some say that they don’t want choice. They’re not interested in carrying out research into which school has the best IT equipment, ratios of teachers to students, plans to develop sporting facilities, etc. They just want to send their child to the nearest school in the knowledge it’ll do its job. That’ fine. But just as having many different car manufacturers raises the average quality of cars, even for those uninterested in the details, a voucher system should increase the probability of the local school being a decent one.


January 09, 2006

Cameron on Tuition Fees

From BBC News:

The Conservative Party has announced a U-turn on student finance and proposes to keep student tuition fees. Previously it had promised to scrap all fees, including top-ups being introduced from this autumn in England. On Monday party leader David Cameron told sixth formers that if universities were to be well funded, the money had to come from somewhere. In another change Mr Cameron also said he believed there should be no limit on student numbers..At the last election, the Conservatives said they would scrap all tuition fees while retaining Labour's reintroduced grants for poorer students. Instead they had said they would have bigger student loans at a commercial interest rate, rather than the effective zero rate that applies now.

Provided he adopts Labour’s plans to allow deferred payment of tuition fees, this sounds fair. Large loans reduce the need for less wealthy students to work while at university, which limit the amount of time that can be spent on academic work. The deferred fees arrest the decline in the quality of UK universities relative to those abroad. These are the key problems highlighted by LSE’s Nicholas Barr an avid proponent of variable income-contingent fees. In a report for the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee he states,

There is agreement, first, about two core problems:

Students are poor because the system of support does not give them enough to live on. Two results follow: students have to turn to expensive overdraft and credit-card debt and/or to extensive part-time work; and the parsimony of support is an impediment to access for people contemplating university.

Universities are poor, creating worries about quality. The UK would have to spend an extra £3.5 billion per year to reach the EU average.

It’s understandable that the prospect of hefty debt following university may put people off; particularly the poor, for whom further education is most needed. However, if people are forward looking enough to think about the debt they’ll leave with, should they not also consider the higher earning potential yielded by a marketable degree? Rather than being a justification for subsidies, an aversion to taking on debt is reason for parents and teachers to engage students in serious, practical discussions when these decisions must be made.


November 21, 2005

Medical Schools

The Times comments on the increased popularity of foreign universities in the light of high domestic competition for places and impending top-up fees. It focuses on those hoping to study dentistry or medicine.

British medical students are heading for eastern European universities to beat fierce competition for places in the UK and the prospect of rising fees. They calculate that the chances of being accepted on courses in countries such as the Czech Republic are better than at UK universities and that the cost, including living expenses, is lower. The option has become increasingly attractive since the admission of more countries to the European Union last year. Doctors and dentists with degrees from within the EU are able to practise in Britain without taking conversion courses.
Komel Ali, 20, a medical student from Preston, Lancashire, studying medicine, studied at the independent Kirkham Grammar, a girls’ school near Preston. She chose Prague because of the strong competition for places in British medical schools. The latest figures in Britain show that 17,826 students applied to UK medical schools in 2004, but only 7,955 were accepted. Some of the most popular universities had 17 applications per place.

Read it in full here.

It seems crazy that the health sector, so in need of qualified staff is managing without so many eager applicants. The lucky few who are selected and make it though years of study are clearly very able. However, highly intelligent doctors are of little use if their efficiency is hampered by long hours and strict targets, or if waiting lists prevent you from seeing a specialist and getting treatment for weeks or months. I'm sure many would be happy with a merely average doctor if it meant they could get treatment immediately.

The capacity of the country’s medical schools is constrained by the availability of government funds. Private medical schools exist though I’m not sure what hoops must be jumped though to set one up. The low prominence of private schools may reflect the high fees charged or the fact that they’re hard to create in the first place. If it’s unambiguously the former you could say that state subsidising of medical study is all that’s preventing an even greater shortage. However, it’s the government that ultimately sets the salaries that determine whether a large investment in education will be worth it years down the line.

I don’t know what the solution to the ‘doctors crisis’ is. Yet there must be an option that doesn’t involve turning away willing medical students on our doorstep whilst we poach much needed staff from developing nations.


October 24, 2005

School Admissions & LEAs

The telegraph reports on Tony Blair’s proposals to change secondary school admission procedures. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) are against Blair’s idea of allowing parents to know the outcome of 11-plus exams (for grammar schools) before being made to give their preferences for comprehensive or grammar schools.

Diana Grant, a mother of two from Broadstairs in Kent, who planned a legal challenge to the policy before the U-turn, said councils should not be able to veto the change.

"The current arrangements are appalling and must be changed because parents are left not knowing what to do for the best. The Government's U-turn on this was a victory for common sense. Expectations of parental choice were raised, and then obstacles are put up at a local level."

Councils who have lodged objections to the early release of the results claim it would give parents who want to apply to grammar school "two bites of the cherry".

To elaborate on the last point, here’s a paragraph from the DfES School Admissions Code of Practice

In those areas where grammar schools exist, parents should be asked to express school preferences before they know the outcome of selective tests. Adjudicators have consistently held that to delay the expression of preferences until parents interested in grammar schools know whether their children do or do not meet selective schools’ entry standards is unfair to other parents who want a place only at a non-selective school or schools.

The LEAs would rather not have places at the best comprehensive schools going to pupils who choose it merely because of an unsuccessful grammar school application.

This in itself doesn’t seem like a great justification of the current admissions process. I can see why schools would rather take on people for whom it was first choice, rather than others who saw it as a backup. Still, it seems harsh to effectively punish parents who merely sought the best possible education for their child. The Telegraph article also states that many who would like a grammar school education end up applying for popular comprehensive schools anyway, for fear of being left with a lower standard comprehensive if 11-plus results don’t turn out as expected. It’s therefore impossible to judge the ‘dedication’ of applicants to a given comprehensive under either process.

Additionally, the objections to allowing parents have 11-plus results beforehand fails to put the proposal in the wider context of Blair’s strategy. Education minister Ruth Kelly seeks to bring secondary school choices forward in time and to give schools the power to expand. This would give popular schools the permission and time to take measures to cater for greater than expanded demand, increasing the likelihood of people getting their preferred choice whether or not their ideal choice was a comprehensive.

Taking an even broader view, need to ration access to a good education, as championed by the LEAs, stems from not just restrictions on the expansion of existing schools but on failure to encourage the creation of all together new schools by parents, charities and profit making institutions. Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly seem to be making baby-steps towards greater freedom in education, but I’m not optimistic for the future. Who genuinely thinks LEAs will approve of plans to radically cut their span of command over the education administration?


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