No cost to set us free

March 25, 2005

Education is not an election issue. So, says Paul Whiteley, the Government should take a step back

Despite dominating the headlines last year, higher education is not going to be a serious election issue. At least, not according to the British Election Study.

The study team is completing a pre-election national survey, more than three times larger than an average opinion poll. It poses the following question: "As far as you are concerned, what is the single most important issue facing the country at the present time?" No prompts are given so respondents can say what they are really worried about.

In terms of priorities, education ranks fifth, eclipsed by asylum-seekers, crime, the National Health Service and the war in Iraq. Just under 6 per cent of the electorate think it is the most important problem, and this refers to all aspects of education.

It is a safe bet that after people's concerns about primary and secondary education have been taken into account, higher education is a long way down the rankings. It is simply not salient enough to have much of an impact on the election.

But assume for a moment that it did rank higher, say second or third, this would still not change the issue's electoral impact. This is because, as far as education is concerned, there is no significant difference in public evaluations of Labour and Conservative.

When asked about the Government's handling of education, just over a third thought that it was doing well. When asked about the performance of a hypothetical Conservative government on the issue, again just over a third thought that it would do well. Labour has introduced top-up fees, which the Tories oppose. Yet there is no difference in the standing of the parties on education as a whole - any perceived division on higher education policy is not translating into a perception that the outcome would be any different.

Hence, the issue is unlikely to have a significant influence on the general election.

Given this, why does the state interfere so much in higher education? It fixes the fees we can charge and the number of students we can teach. We are ludicrously overregulated and overevaluated.

This state of affairs is all the more puzzling given the 25-year trend to seek market solutions to policy problems. The Government has vigorously pursued private finance initiatives in the public sector yet has failed to introduce a genuine market in university fees.

The Conservatives are no different, demanding the complete state control of university finances.

Why are the last vestiges of the old Soviet Gosplan system alive and well in British higher education today?

Well, there is a natural tendency for regulatory agencies to proliferate as the Government tries to cope with uncertainty and weakness by command and control methods. There is also bureaucratic rent-seeking by agencies anxious to carve out territory for themselves.

But more significant are fears about the electoral consequences of tampering with the large-scale subsidies to the middle classes through higher education. This unspoken assumption on the part of many MPs became clear as the Bill that introduced top-up fees made its controversial passage through Parliament.

The fear is that an end to teaching undergraduates at well below cost price would trigger a middle-class backlash of major proportions and that would have electoral consequences.

But the next election is going to be largely about issues of security, with many people feeling unsafe in relation to terrorism, crime and immigration.

The Conservative Party traditionally has an advantage when it comes to these issues, which explains why it has been catching up with the Government in recent polls.

In such times, education and welfare take a back seat to these more pressing and immediate concerns.

If we had a sensible regulatory framework for higher education, everyone would be better off in the long run. A free market in fees and a bonfire of regulations would bring short-term unpopularity. But there would not be much of an electoral effect. So why don't the policymakers stop worrying and set us all free?

Paul Whiteley is professor of politics at Essex University and co-director of the British Election Study.

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