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  1. Luxury
May 21, 2012

Education Special Leader: An Unfeasible Future

By Spear's

What is the purpose of education? You can extract a reasonable, complex explanation from among the platitudes and pragmatism: a decent education shapes the mind, inculcates values, makes sentient, critical members of society, prepares people for the world of work, develops the technologies and sectors which support the economy. All the above are fair definitions.

WHAT IS THE purpose of education? You can extract a reasonable, complex explanation from among the platitudes and pragmatism: a decent education shapes the mind, inculcates values, makes sentient, critical members of society, prepares people for the world of work, develops the technologies and sectors which support the economy. All the above are fair definitions.

Because we value it so highly — indeed, we can export our independent schools system around the world, as we report here — we have simultaneously become obsessed with and heedless of its cost. The annual fees for a boarding school, have gone up 77 per cent in ten years, to £25,000, and the top schools are approaching or above £30,000. (As with universities and the £9,000 rate, if you charge less, people will think you’re worse.) Day schools have flown even higher, increasing by 87 per cent. Even nurseries, where you’d think the main luxury would be a carton of milk at eleven o’clock, are now charging £15,000 a year.

On the other hand, universities not only have no spare money for projects like swimming pools or new faculty buildings but are also struggling to pay for the teaching and research which are the mainstay of their reputations. As we write in this issue, an Oxford undergraduate education costs £16,000 per year, yet only £8,000 of that is covered by fees and government support; even when the new fees of £9,000 come in, because the university has promised to increase student support it will actually be worse off than now. Philanthropy is needed to reconcile the credit and debit sides of the ledger, and Oxford Thinking has raised £1.3 billion — but could always do with more.

The logical conclusion from this is to let Oxford have the freedom that these top nurseries, prep schools and public schools have by permitting it to go private. It could then charge as much as it liked, fully funding its places, offering greatly enhanced student support, expanding its facilities and finally competing on equal financial terms with Harvard, which has an endowment five times as large as Oxford’s. There is no limit to the number of eager parents who would add another, say, £60,000 to a bill for school fees which has been accumulating since the age of five.

But… In cases where money is no object, even greater care has to be taken in the selection of students. We would not want Oxford selecting 70 per cent of its students on the basis that, while not exactly dim, they could subsidise the 30 per cent of brilliant students who could not afford £20,000. That would be a blow and a betrayal. The provision for support would have to be so great, in perpetuity, that it could not depend on annual tuition fees: it would have to be funded by endowment.
 
  
WE NEED TO take a step back before we unleash chequebook pedagogy on the higher education system, however, and consider why prices have risen — or could rise — to such heights. The ascent of London to global capital of the super-wealthy is clearly in the frame, with businessmen not just attracted by our lax regulation and low non-dom taxes but also by our culture, schools and landscape. There is also the increased value of education in the workplace, creating students able to compete globally in advanced industries. The financial and intellectual poverty of much of the state sector does not help, although we have included the best state schools in our Education Index and profiled the founder of a new free school, who is aiming to give state schooling the rigour and creativity of the private sector.

The answer is not a rush to the free market, with places solely for those who can pay — at least not until we have been philanthropic enough to ensure that those who can’t pay still get the best education money can buy.

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