Trickle down education

Why the rich benefit the most from free fees

Photo by Joe McCallion

Before I explain my position, I would like to say something about myself. I am not an ideologue who believes that the private sector is always more efficient, nor do I believe people are fully responsible for their social outcome. I say this because I feel that these are the two accusations most often thrown at those who do not support free fees.

One of the main criteria, I think, for judging the fairness of a society is how well it treats those who are comparatively worse-off. State funding can often ameliorate the structural problems that many suffer from. My reservation about free fees is that (in contrast to much of the rhetoric) state funding, as it currently operates, is less effective at achieving this than it initially seems.

While I make this caveat, I realise it probably won’t matter. A significant portion of readers I imagine will brand me a Leo Varadkar wannabe or something of that ilk. I know this because it’s what I did.

Two years ago, when the free fees debate resurfaced, I attended the early Students Against Fees meetings and passionately supported free education. One day an acquaintance came up to me, presumably to provoke me, and mentioned that free fees were a “subsidy for the upper middle class”. I remember laughing at him and forgetting about it. The next time a Leo Varadkar wannabe spoke, I said, I’d be prepared.

But the more I learned, the less certain I was of my anti-fee stance. Two years on from my initial gut support of free education, I cannot help but think the belief that free fees as a progressive stance may be misguided.

Modern Mobility

Education is often spoken about as a liberating force that can change the lives and fortune of those who fully engage with it. To understand why free fees might actually hinder this aim, it’s important to recognise the distinction between absolute and relative mobility. Mobility in this context refers to your likelihood of moving between economic classes.

Absolute mobility refers to the total amount of people who have been mobile in a particular class compared to the past generation. Relative mobility, on the other hand, measures a person’s chance of moving upwards and downwards compared with the mobility of other economic classes. In a society with perfect relative mobility, which assumes no other forces are at play, all groups will have the same chance of moving into any class.

A doctor’s child would therefore have the same chance of being a labourer, or doing a similar job, as a labourer’s child would have of becoming something like a doctor.

Ireland had a large rise in absolute mobility over the second half of the 20th century. With the onset of the industrial and then post-industrial age, people were progressing further in school as their parents’ old jobs became replaced with newer ones requiring a higher skill set. Education therefore became a necessity for sustaining a livelihood. Furthermore, the dawn of a post-industrial society required more high-level managerial positions than there were people of higher economic classes to fill them, as a result a considerable amount of people from working classes experienced upward mobility.

A similar trend in other countries led the American cold-war theorist Daniel Bell to suggest that the post-industrial society would eventually lead to a meritocracy with education as the medium. The greater emphasis on educational credentials, due to the greater skill required in work, would usurp the importance of family ties. The most-suited, regardless of class, would rise to the higher economic classes while the less-suited would do the less skill-intensive work.

This prediction, however, proved to be wrong in Ireland and elsewhere. While lower classes saw an increase in absolute mobility, the offspring of those in higher economic classes became increasingly more likely to remain in their parents’ class. The chance of a doctor’s offspring becoming a doctor, or something as equally economically prosperous, rose in comparison to other groups. Relative mobility, therefore, actually declined slightly.

Bell was right that education would begin to play a larger role, but instead of heralding a meritocracy, it led to what the sociologist John Goldthorpe calls a society defined by  “credentialism”. While educational credentials became more important than ever, those in some higher economic classes started to put a larger emphasis on education relative to other groups.

This ensured that any true meritocracy was undermined since they guaranteed that, on average, their children would outperform other children.  As Pierre Bourdieu once claimed, education, rather than a means of liberation, was a “conservative force”, reproducing the social order that already existed.

A return to the Leaving Cert

Consistently, the average offspring of doctors and lawyers dramatically outperform the children of unskilled members of the working class in the Leaving Cert. It is clear that this discrepancy isn’t fully genetic. The evidence for this can be found in the fact that mobility fluctuates greatly over history and between societies, as well as in a host of research concerning IQ and social stratification.

Don’t be scared off by the graph below, it’s really straight forward. Let’s say the first normally distributed curve represents the exam results of those from higher professional backgrounds. The second, on the other hand, represents those from unskilled manual backgrounds. The first normally-distributed curve is a bit to the right because the x-axis represents, let’s say, leaving cert exam points. The lines represent two hypothetical cut-off points for pursuing third level.

As one can clearly see, expanding the cut-off point to, say, line B, will increase the proportion of upper middle class students attending university to a greater degree than it will the proportion of working class students. It’s only after the vast majority of the first group are guaranteed a third level education that the other group’s chances will rise,relatively speaking.

The argument goes that making education free shifts the cut-off point from line A to line B, which increases the chance of offspring from groups like higher professionals going to third level, relative to those from unskilled manual labour and similar backgrounds.

It’s not hard to see why: as education gets cheaper, upper middle class parents of children who are not academically inclined see no reason for their kids not to attend third level. It’s not all theoretical graphs either; a study by Selena McCoy and Emer Smyth proves this in practice, as it highlights how the introduction of free fees in Ireland in the ‘90s did not actually increase the participation of working class students relative to other groups, as was expected.

The phenomenon might be even less favourable towards those in lower classes than the graph depicts. Firstly, it does not account for vocational education or school drop-outs. Secondly, it is well reported that those from working class backgrounds are more likely to go to institutes of technology and small colleges than those from professional backgrounds, who prefer universities, irrespective of points.

Thirdly, abolition of fees does not take into account, for example, meagre grants, rising rents and cultural alienation, all of which are likely to affect those from poorer economic backgrounds disproportionately.

A wasted opportunity

Notwithstanding these caveats, the graphs show that trying to encourage those from poorer backgrounds to go to third level through eliminating fees is effective, in an absolute sense, but reduces relative mobility. This is trickle-down education. In a system of no fees the upper middle class get the majority of the benefits while other groups get the scraps.

Furthermore, this is assuming there’s no opportunity cost, which there certainly is. The money spent on higher education has to come from somewhere. Given the public expenditure’s limited budget and also the government’s frugal spending on some of society’s most vital services, any money invested in education is money that has not been invested elsewhere. Since it is those from economically poorer backgrounds who are most likely to benefit from the welfare state, they are subsequently most likely to be affected by any cuts to funding in these areas.

However, could we not just raise taxes, allowing this opportunity cost to fade away? We definitely could raise taxes, but I have not seen any mass demonstrations campaigning for a tax hike. I have no doubt many free-fees advocates expect free education to be funded by an increase in tax of some sort, but given the nature of the most popular political parties in Ireland, along with the sizeably unpopularity of an income tax hike among citizens, I find it unlikely that corporations or citizens will be asked to foot the bill.

Some might suggest that ensuring a more privileged future for the few in order to help the many is a price worth paying. The thing is though, introducing loans for those from middle class backgrounds affords us the opportunity of increasing the participation of those in economically lower groups without making that sacrifice. Loans would act as a disincentive for those children who are going to third level merely for the sake of going. It would also raise revenue that could be partially used in increasing participation in other groups through, for example, an increase in grant payments.

I therefore am not outrightly suggesting that everyone take out loans nor that we dismantle the grants scheme. Most research shows that while it makes economic sense for working class groups to take out loans, they are culturally more adverse to them. Our best evidence shows that a loan scheme would therefore likely reduce participation for those groups.

The grant scheme is unquestionably one of Ireland’s most progressive policies, even now when it is in dire need of funding. Admittedly it is unlikely this is the type of loan scheme Fine Gael wish to implement, and that’s why groups such as the USI and the TCDSU would need to advocate and campaign as rigorously as they are now.

A concern some people have raised is the practical implementation of such a system. This is,I think, a reasonable hesitation but one I feel shouldn’t stand in the way of attempting to formulate such a policy, at least on paper. A loans scheme should not be accepted blindly. As other countries have shown, when wrongly implemented, such schemes can have grave consequences. Instead, all groups concerned should spend a considerable amount of time going over any suggestion with a fine-toothed comb in order to make sure everything is in order before implementation.

Often people point out that loans schemes have caused a great burden around the world. This is unquestionably true in cases like America. But no-one, I hope, is asking for the complete deregulation and free-marketisation of education that led to such exorbitant fees.

Ireland is in a unique position in that we are not currently going through a period of austerity, as was the case when Britain introduced loans. By starting a dialogue about loans, rather than outrightly rejecting them, we are more likely to be heard than our counterparts. We therefore have the opportunity of creating a truly progressive and redistributive loan scheme. The serious issues that have been raised about  the English and Welsh loan scheme are problems we could potentially avoid.

Another common critique of loan schemes are that they lead to the marketisation of third level education. People are less likely to pursue subjects that are less profitable when they are concerned about their financials. The issue with this critique is that it doesn’t acknowledge that this is already what happens. A study by Christina Iannelli shows that those from poorer backgrounds in England, Scotland and Wales are more likely to enter vocationally-oriented courses such as business/administration over humanities/arts courses compared to other groups.

An increase in grant payments may actually allow those from lower backgrounds to follow their passions for the first time. Furthermore, by making sure fees don’t become extortionate like in America, and by keeping the cap on fee repayment reasonably high unlike in Britain, we can mitigate the issue for many middle class students.

Finally, some may question why educational policy should prioritise the ideals of mobility and redistribution. Education is a right and it should not be a student’s responsibility to fund it, they might say. This is a reasonable argument in that it is consistent with itself but it has very little connection with the banners and rhetoric often found at free-fees marches.

It reduces the student movement to one fuelled by vested interest irrespective of the common good. If this is something student bodies can live with then free-fees might be worth marching for. However, if it is not, then maybe we should reconsider where we stand.