Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What the British can remind us about higher education funding

I've argued before that one of the ironies of American education is that K-12 and higher education work under assumptions that are both radically different and uninformed by each other.

One of the most obvious focuses on per-student funding.  In public K-12 education, per student funding is a major point of discussion.  And while there is debate about exactly how important increasing per-student spending is for student learning, it goes without saying that schools that have more funding per student are able to invest in more learning opportunities, better quality resources, and higher paid teachers than those with lower funding levels.  In short, at the K-12 level, per-student funding is about fairness and access to resources.

In American higher education, though, we rarely talk about per-student income as an important indicator of fairness.  It is true that representatives from public institutions express concern about declining state subsidies for higher education. But key rankings of colleges and universities are uncritical about the wealth amassed by major universities (public and private).  And measures of student learning--the value-added scales of the CLA for example--don't directly take into consideration per student income as a factor.  Instead, they predict performance based on student test scores.  Indeed, the main discussion that touches on per-student funding is about the cost of higher education.  Concern about rising cost is spot-on as far as it goes.  But to imagine that financial resources are unimportant for student learning (one implication of the call to reduce the cost of higher education) is to live in a fantasy world.

Enter Professor Roger Brown from Liverpool Hope University. He has calculated an index of the per-student incomes of British universities.  The disparity is huge.  Cambridge has the highest per-student income, at 65,840 pounds.  In comparison, Edge Hill's per-student income is 7,050 pounds.  (The disparity in per student net assets is even larger).

Brown makes two points about this disparity.  First, he wonders whether it is good for the nation to have such a massive range of institutional wealth, given that the well-being of the nation as a whole depends on having relatively healthy educational opportunities for all of its students.

 Second, he notes:

"...there is a basic question of fairness. The better-resourced universities generally recruit students from better-off backgrounds, including many educated at private, taxpayer-subsidised, fee-charging schools. So students who have already had the most spent on them up to the age of 18 continue to have the most spent on them, reinforcing their social and educational capital. By the same token, many of their less favoured state school-educated brethren will continue to have less available to them."

Of course British higher education differs from American higher ed in significant ways.  But certainly the range of per-student income at American colleges and universities would be wider than that at British institutions, given the larger number and more diverse missions of American institutions. But our politics contain no policy recommendations related to that disparity.  Instead, the presidential discussions about higher education share naive calls for reducing the cost of higher education and a tempest in a teapot argument about whether private banks or the federal government ought to fund federal student loans.  All the while, sources of funding flow to institutions who can bring in major philanthropic donations and research support, or who can catch the eye of venture capitalists.  

Nowhere is there a call to shift subsidies from those institutions to institutions whose missions, faculties, and student bodies guarantee that neither the philanthropic rich nor the federal-corporate research nexus will fund them in the future.  But if we hope that education will be a way for people to lift themselves out of poverty and unemployment, we should consider such a move.

No comments: