Human nature and higher education: you can’t have it both ways

As the seminal battle over changes to higher education funding reaches boiling point with the deciding vote in the Commons today, commentators from the anti-cuts camp have been hunkering down in search of discrepancies within the government’s proposals, most notably the Browne Review upon whose recommendations these changes were largely based. On the face of it – and it would seem enough to appease many Liberal Democrats – these changes represent as progressive and fair a system as we could hope for in the coming years; austerity, we are told, demands some sacrifices, but it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Indeed, David Cameron writing in the Evening Standard last week and in a speech last night seeks to inculcate a sense of optimism about the changes to higher education, citing better choice, a fairer deal for poorer students, the offer of more student support and a higher quality of teaching.

Although within the bill there exist some noteworthy positive changes, there are unfortunately some glaringly obvious and serious flaws to be drawn out. To take one example, raising tuition fees to the £6-9k level proposed will never amount to covering the reductions in teaching budgets, especially in the areas of arts and humanities which face cuts of 80%, raising the question of how exactly it is that teaching quality will be improved in the years ahead. Without delving too deep into the many caveats of these HE alterations, there is one particular contradiction that seems impossible to ignore.

Underpinning these new proposals is a fervent belief in the market where the provision of higher education is expected to be dictated in large part by consumer choice, rather than through the top-down provision of public funds. Put simply, the idea is that the money will flow to the institutions and courses which students decide to opt for as opposed to the existing arrangement which sees a widely administered teaching grant applied to all sorts of courses and higher education institutions, regardless of initial demand. Here there is not just a faith in the market, but more importantly, there is a faith in the ability of students to rationally decide where to study and what to study; to garner together all relevant information and to calculate whether they’ll be in the red or the black in the future depending on which course and university they decide to choose.

But it is in this view of human nature where the real problem lies. Lord Browne writes that a service delivered upon student satisfaction will incentivise universities to provide better choice, quality and more appropriate teaching. This is founded upon what he momentarily takes as a truism: that ‘students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want to get from participating in higher education’.  But, as Stefan Collini pointed out in the LRB recently, in considering where the remaining central pot of government funding should be distributed, Lord Browne immediately retreats in his apparent faith of student’s ability to consider the full facts, evidence and arguments before making judgements:

It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment. The sentence that immediately follows the vacuous one about students’ ‘wants’ reads: ‘We have looked carefully at the scope to distribute funding by some objective metric of quality; but there is no robust way to do this and we doubt whether the choices of a central funding body should be put before those of students.’

We all know that the ‘homo economicus’ view of human nature is an inherently flawed one, but the government seems to select where and when it chooses to rely on this perspective. Yes, when it comes to certain aspects of deciding higher education proposals, we can rely on this calculating view of human nature. But, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out, when it comes to something like encouraging healthy eating or pro-environmental behaviour, it seems as if we’re not so rational after all. Earlier this year a ‘nudge’ unit was set up in the Cabinet Office with the explicit aim of coming up with initiatives which could subtly direct people towards choosing decisions that were seen as the best for them, but which they wouldn’t have chosen of their own accord. For example, the idea of redesigning the canteen so that healthier types of food were more visible. As Nick Clegg pointed out at the time, this is important because each and every one of us is susceptible to the risk of being short-termist.

“In real life, people eat doughnuts, decide not to go for a run, and put off making payments into their pension fund. The economists say this means we are engaged in an ‘irrational discounting of time’. The rest of us describe it as being human.”

Humans, we are told, make mistakes, they don’t plan for the long-term and they don’t take into account the full facts. If the fate of higher education – and by implication the lives of thousands of students, teaching staff and university institutions – is to be determined in part by an out-dated account of human nature, of which Nick Clegg himself occasionally derides, there is something fundamentally wrong with these new proposals.