Thursday, 10 November 2011

Higher Education - The Case FOR (some) cuts!

This post is going to be extremely unpopular I suspect, but I think I want to layout a basic case for some public spending cuts in Higher Education (which may or may not best be offset by increasing spending elsewhere in HE).

I've argued in the past to friends that while there's enormous hypocrisy in the arguments we're presented with for slashing teaching grants for arts, there is a certain degree of logic to them.

Studies suggest (sources to follow shortly) that about 2/3 of the gains from Higher Education are private, not Social.

Today, I accidentally sat through an Art History Lecture at the University of Oxford.

A few things struck me:

1. I was the only non-white person in the room, and my presence was an accident. (There were literally two people who were sufficiently 'tanned' that they MAY not be from Europe , North America or Australasia).

2. Unlike the melting pot of Physics or Computer Science lectures, everyone was immaculately well turned out, well dressed and thin. The room looked very (upper) middle class (a few exceptions, and based on subjective judgements though).

3. The knowledge I gained from being in that class was of extremely low value to society but may have been of extremely high value/interest to a private individual. I literally cannot imagine how I might use the knowledge to society's benefit except as a way of trying to bring the whole thing down. In essence the lecture was about the relationship between Patrons and their artists, although the title was 'Creation and consumption, Patronage and Audience'

I was essentially observing a bunch of Upper Middle Class Kids, get Lectured by an Upper Middle Class Lecturer, on things that are of interest to virtually exclusively Upper Middle Class People, all of whom (with the possible exception of 2) were of caucasion background (less suprising given that the lecturer informed us that Art, with a capital A, as studied in the literature has been produced by the West).

My suspicion is that the social gains from this education are very minimal indeed. What will these people go on to do? Some will go into art history academia, which will continue to benefit the same middle class white people that study it. Presumably most will get an office job which benefits little from a thorough grasp of how the relationship between patron and artist changed art and was changed by it. Almost all the actual benefits will go to the student who had the benefit of enjoying three years of studying something they love.

I'm all for people being able to study something they love for three years without many thousands of pounds of debt hanging over their heads. But since a preponderance of those doing these degrees are very upper Middle Class, providing public subsidies to this stuff is mostly subsidizing the rich and powerful, whose parent are already willing to subsidize their passion to learn.

Why should the public be paying for this?

Its actually true that ending subsidies will put these subjects outside of the reach of poor people, particularly because even private income returns to Arts degrees may be negative, particularly for men. But how many poor people are reaching for them in the first place?

Arguing that we cannot allow this injustice misses the key point that this has the potential to right far more serious injustices and as a result, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Subsidizing these degrees is regressive since most of the money goes to the well off. Poor people shouldn't have to pay for that. If you're a fan of more liberal access to higher education, then by all means argue for using the money to improve access to more education in Physics, Chemistry and Computer Science. But there's no good reason to tax the poor to give the rich purely private gains. Any gains to particular poor individuals are far outweighed to the gains to (necessarily) much large group of equally deserving individuals who pay the cost of the policy, whether in higher taxes, or having to give up hope of getting a masters in Climate Science.

When funding is cut to the NHS, the poor speak out, and loudly. But when it comes to cutting money for whats termed ' the arts' but in fact refers to a specific type of art (mostly that consumed by rich people) the resistance is from liberal elites keen to maintain the cultural constructs that preserve distinctions that mark their taste out as 'Art' and the tastes of others less well off than themselves, as just 'art'.

In short, 'The Arts' are mostly studied by the well off and so subsidies benefit the well off at the expense of the poor. That makes these subsidies regressive. Whilst it may be a noble goal to increase access to the Arts, its silly to prioritize this over the sorts of goals that society's marginalised are actually striving for.

I will update this post with sources and other stuff soon.

Some useful reading:
LSE Report on the returns to higher education - split out by different subjects (note the negative returns to Arts degrees):

Journal of Econometrics article on the distribution of returns

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