Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Make undergrads pay full fees

Dec 1, 2010


It's only morally right, says vice-chancellor of private British varsity

By Tan Hui Yee

AS BRITISH universities erupt in angry student protests at funding cuts and higher tuition fees, one vice-chancellor bravely proffers the view that the cuts are long overdue.

In fact, he thinks the British government should stop giving universities any money at all - save for expensive courses such as medicine - and that Singapore should do the same thing.
'I think it's morally right,' says Dr Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. The student, he says, benefits most from university education as he earns a 'graduate premium' of about £160,000 (S$330,000) over his lifetime.

'If you are going to earn £160,000 more... because you have been to university, it would seem reasonable that you pay for your university education,' he says.

The declaration is fitting, coming from the 58-year-old biochemist who runs Britain's only private university. The small institute - with just over 1,000 students - takes pride in its freedom to operate without government influence.

In town recently to give a talk hosted by the Economic Society of Singapore, he says privatising universities 'empowers' students to demand better education. 'If the students are paying directly for their own education, they are going to start saying to the university, 'Hey, why am I only getting two lectures a week? Why I am only getting one seminar a week?''

Universities will be forced to answer to their new paymasters. 'We'll get a complete reorientation of academics much more around the needs of students,' he says.

But won't such an unsubsidised full-fee system deter many deserving students who cannot afford it?

Not if it is supported by a system of loans, grants and scholarships, he retorts.

[Comment: Singapore's system is already supported by govt grants and various scholarships from private and public sources.]

'I'm prepared to believe that a developing nation might need a boost from the government to set up such institutions. But once a society is as rich as Singapore, the idea that the average Singaporean can't afford to pay for his university education, either immediately or with a loan system, is just clearly not true,' he maintains.

He says having a full fee-paying system will lead to better universities. The current academic system, he thinks, is skewed towards rewarding research. It benefits academics more than students.

Yet universities' main job is to teach. 'The average student only has one go at being an undergraduate. You can't go to (the University of) Warwick and say, 'Well, that was no good, I will now spend another three years at Durham University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.'

'The student only has that one bite of that teaching cherry. And if the teaching is not good, then he is actually being robbed of something.'

In contrast, he says, research 'can take place anywhere'. 'Lots of the best research does not take place in universities,' he claims. 'It takes place in institutions, charitable laboratories, foundation laboratories and (private) industries.'

The self-professed libertarian has published two books - the most recent being the 2008 publication Sex, Science And Profits - which argue that the private and philanthropic sectors in Britain, the United States and even Singapore are responsible for more scientific and technological innovation than what they are given credit for. Both books also argue that government funding for science crowds out private activity rather than add to it.

To be fair, he says, it is possible and even desirable for both research and teaching to be done well within a university. 'It helps keep teaching and scholarship up to date and provides a richer environment for the students.'

However, within the British higher education system at least, the research-centred incentives turn it into a 'zero sum game' at the expense of teaching. The only exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, which he thinks shine on both counts.

He concedes that that may be because they are relatively well-endowed. Cambridge has an endowment fund of £4 billion and Oxford £3 billion. These sums are about four times that held by the National University of Singapore, which had S$2.01 billion in its kitty in March this year.
'That tells us that if universities want to do a proper job, they ought to start doing something about endowments. Oxford and Cambridge are special. But rather than dismiss them, we should all be trying to model ourselves on them.'

Ask him how universities should grow their endowment funds, and he draws out his breath in a long baritone. 'Now that's difficult because the only country that has succeeded in doing that really well is the United States of America.'

He thinks it is because 'when you pay a lot of money to do something, you tend to value it greatly'.

'The paradox is, the more expensive the (university) fees, the more likely it is that people want to donate (to the university) afterwards.'

He cites as evidence the schooling system in 19th-century England, where parents had to pay full fees to educate their charges. 'Levels of attendance went up, levels of truancy went down, the amount of homework that parents demanded and made sure their children did went up.'
To him, paying fees is an expression of ownership that heightens 'the mutual commitment to the activity'.

In contrast, when university education is funded through taxes and made free to students, 'you actually institutionalise irresponsibility'. It also makes people less inclined to donate to universities.

But how will his 'pull out and make them pay up' endowment-raising strategy play out in a country like Singapore, which was placed 91st out of 153 countries earlier this year in terms of its people's willingness to donate time and money?

He sighs and says: 'It's one of the prices you pay for a very paternalistic society.' One of the consequences of living in a society like Singapore, where 'the state is seen as the ultimate provider, like a sort of Earth mother', is that it takes away from people 'the belief in the responsibility of providing these goods themselves', he says.

To make his point, he cites the 'fabulous' art galleries in the United States.

'Almost all the art galleries in America, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the National Gallery of Art in Washington, are supplied by philanthropists to compensate for the lack of government funding...The art galleries in America are the best in the world.'

But he thinks the same may yet happen in Singapore.

'If the Singapore Government identified an area where it just wouldn't support...if it said, 'If the people in Singapore want a symphony orchestra, they are going to have to pay for it themselves', I bet you people will pay for it.'

[Social services?]

Some multimillionaire will cough up the money as long as he gets due recognition for the donation, he predicts.

He concedes that each tycoon will have his or her agenda. But then, 'everyone has an agenda; the government has an agenda'. In the end, he says, all these competing interests even out as long as there are enough diverse sources of funds. Contrary to what people think, he says, market-based societies support rather than kill philanthropy. A nation's 'moral health' is tied intimately to its 'economic health'.

'Markets work only if - and Singapore is a perfect example - people are honest, trustworthy, if their word is their bond... Market economies are based on societies of law-abiding, morally good people.'

Hence, a healthy market society produces rich people 'animated by these moral goods'.

'Like everyone else, they want recognition,' he says. 'That spills over very quickly into philanthropy.'

With the right tax incentives, 'a country like Singapore can produce philanthropy in big amounts'.

Provided, of course, the Government doesn't crowd them out.

No comments: