This blog is based on my remarks to a Policy Network event on the book, taking place in central London on 20th October 2016.
I often wish there were more academics looking at higher education rather than just practising it, and it is rare indeed to come across a useful cross-country comparison like this one. The book’s categorisation of students into five different groups depending on their outlook and financial position is particularly thought-provoking, and I am struck by the similarities as well as the differences across the three areas being studied, England, Italy and Sweden.
As part of this, there is a useful distinction between the present and the future. The author shows it is possible for a student to be pessimistic about the present but optimistic about the future and vice versa. Transitioning to university is a stressful time and so is transitioning to the labour market afterwards.
The book is especially powerful on three areas where I strongly agree with its findings.
- First, the importance of student wellbeing. Our recent work on student mental health discusses that 10-12% of students consider have a mental illness, one-third ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel ‘down or depressed’ and a similar proportion ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel ‘isolated or lonely’. The HEPI-HEA data show higher levels of anxiety among students than among all adults and among young people as a whole.
- Secondly, the problems that can be caused by excessive term-time employment. Needing to find paid employment during term-time does change your student experience and can be problematic – that is why Oxbridge tend to look askance at it. But we should remember it is not always bad: there is some evidence that working around 10 to 15 hours a week can actually help educationally, especially if the work is related to a student’s degree.
- Thirdly, university is worth it for more than financial reasons. The non-pecuniary benefits include greater civic engagement, less propensity to crime and even greater life expectancy. The author usefully reminds us that looking at financial returns alone is a poor guide to the value of higher education.
So the book is well worth a read. But there are also three areas where I find less reason to agree with its conclusions.
First, the book talks a lot about how student loans ‘privatise risk’. They can do so when they are badly designed, but I think that displays a misunderstanding of how our loans work. On page 144, the author states loans ‘assume equal returns in the labour market’. But when they are income-contingent they do not assume that all graduates are equal. In our system, the richest graduate pays back more than they borrow, the average graduate pays back less than they borrow and the poorest graduate pays zilch, with the generality of taxpayers filling in the large shortfall. Whatever the whys and wherefores of student loans, that is risk sharing – and in a progressive way. Indeed, some of the asides in the book suggest that students understand the key features, with many describing it as ‘good debt’ (page 151).
Secondly, there is lots about how the impact of student loans on the financial position of individual students but there is nothing about the benefits of our fee system for student numbers and the unit of resource (the amount of funding per student). It is the loans system that allows the system to expand and to ensure there is sufficient money to educate each student, which was not the case in the recent past. (This isn’t the place for a discussion of the accounting treatment of student loans but HEPI has published a report on this here.)
Thirdly, the book claims on page 160 that ‘HE is the battleground where inequalities are most reproduced for young people in European societies at present.’ It is unsurprising that a book focused on higher education should give such a primary role to higher education, but it is an exaggeration nonetheless. What about inequality between graduates and non-graduates, who are absent from the book?
Also absent are international students, who can face particular obstacles all of their own. Chinese students typically have no siblings as a result of the one-child policy, so the pressures they carry to succeed can be immense. I once heard of an Indian student who was being supported by his whole village to study at a UK university. The pressures on such people are enormous and more than rival some of the tougher cases in the book.
It would be wrong to end without noting how interesting the book is on parental contributions towards the cost of being a student. Page 146 says there is an assumption of parental contributions ‘which doesn’t always reflect the availability of family sources.’ I think one of the biggest problems is a lack of information, which means parents do not know how much they are meant to contribute and cannot prepare in advance.
Indeed, I suspect there is a barely a parent in the country who knows precisely what their contribution is assumed to be. Fortunately, Martin Lewis, the self-styled Money Saving Expert (with whom I do not always see eye-to-eye on student finance), has performed a great public service in designing a ready reckoner to answer that question. It shows parents can be expected to contribute in the region of £4-5,000. That is more than in the past but, given the cost of accommodation, even that may not leave their student offspring with enough to live on.