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Response to Danny Dorling’s claim that HEPI published information that was ‘not true’

  • 20 December 2017
  • By Nick Hillman

We welcome it when people challenge what we do because HEPI’s role is to encourage discussion. Our output is designed to educate, inform and enlighten. Although we never seek to provoke people for the sake of it, we do seek to provoke informed debate. Indeed, we routinely provide platforms for people who disagree with something we have said (see, for example, here and here).

Following the evidence, as we seek to do, does not just mean putting nose to trail; it also means debating whether you have the right evidence, are using it in the right way and are drawing the right conclusions. One of the joys for me of moving from a party political environment to think-tank land is the freedom that comes from having no party line, the freedom to change one’s mind quickly as new evidence comes to light and the freedom to publish contradictory pieces by different authors.

It is – unsurprisingly – less welcome when someone challenges the accuracy of our facts (rather than our interpretation of the evidence). That happened yesterday, in an article in the Guardian by Danny Dorling and Ben Hennig. It took aim at an old HEPI report I wrote on German higher education.

The article says:

In 2015 the Higher Education Policy Institute said: “People in England, Wales and Northern Ireland often ask, if Germany can abolish tuition fees, why can’t we? Part of the answer is that Germany sends a lower proportion of young people to university and spends less on each one.”

This was, and still is, not true. A larger number and higher proportion of young people in Germany go to university than in the UK. [My emphasis]

When people question our facts, our natural impulse is to scurry off and check them. Having done so, I stand by the report. The numbers to support our argument that Germany sent fewer young people to university and spent less on each one were provided in a table on page 2 of the report, with full references, so they are hard to miss and easy to check. (It is a relief we were right because the report in question is one of our most widely-read papers ever…!)

But perhaps things have changed since? After all, Danny and Ben’s piece say it is ‘still’ the case that it is ‘not true’ to claim Germany sends a smaller proportion of young people to university and spends less on each one.

I set out to check this and it turns out Danny and Ben are wrong when it comes to the latest data too.

The annual OECD Education at a Glance report is the best source of like-for-like data on the education systems of developed countries. It is an incredibly rich source of information and the four charts below are taken from the 2017 edition, which came out in September.

Together, they confirm that, compared to the UK, Germany:

  1. sends a smaller proportion of the population to tertiary education;
  2. sends a smaller proportion of young home students to tertiary education;
  3. has a smaller proportion of young graduates; and
  4. spends less educating each student.

The charts show that on three of these four measures, the UK is above the OECD average while Germany is below it.

1. Sends a smaller proportion of the population to tertiary education

2. Sends a smaller proportion of young home students to higher education

3. Has a smaller proportion of young graduates

4. Spends less educating each student

It seems Danny and Ben have made two errors.

The first is to assume that statistics on the total number of students (the stock) are a reliable guide to the proportion of young people who benefit from higher education in each age cohort. That would be the case if every higher education system and society were identical. But things like the average length of study are different in different countries. Knowing there are, say, 2 million students in country A and also in country B is not enough to deduce information about the proportion of young people in each country that gain some higher education. Yet this is the only sort of evidence that Danny and Ben have provided.

Their second mistake is shaping evidence to fit an ideological position: in this case, their goal was to argue against the existence of tuition fees. There are lots of arguments and precedents for running fee-free higher education and ‘free’ higher education systems can be good ones.

I personally worry about the limits on places, resources and autonomy that could be imposed if fees were to be abolished in those parts of the UK where they are common. But it should be possible to have a debate about that without throwing around false comparisons between Germany, where there are generally no fees, and the UK, where there are currently four rather different student funding regimes in place.

We have contacted the Guardian and the authors of the piece to ask them to correct any factual inaccuracies, including the false claim that we published ‘not true’ information.

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