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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

The cost of ‘fair access' will be higher fees

Written by Henry Hill | Tuesday 13 March 2012

Last time I posted here, I attacked Professor Les Ebdon’s  plan to poison the well of British higher education by subjugating the admission criteria of our best universities to ‘progressive’ political priorities.

However, before and after that article I’ve found that ‘merciless meritocracy’ is insufficient to sway some of my progressively-minded student friends. Equalising university access chances between high-achievers and the rest is ‘fair’. So entrenched is their opposition to selective and private education, or even the ‘internal market’ of parent choice, that the argument that it is schools that have failed similarly go nowhere.

So we who support the continued excellence of our top-flight universities need a new argument. One less vested in meritocratic principle not shared by our opponents, and grounded in something that both sides understand. Something like money, for example.

The case is fairly simple. Since Tony Blair engorged it, higher education in this country has become very expensive for the government to provide. As a result, governments have had to introduce fees, which have not been popular with students. Yet the fees for enfranchised domestic students have been held down by the much higher fees charged to international students.

International students are one of the financial keystones of UK higher education, worth “billions” of pounds per annum. The Guardian figures from 2009 show that foreign students were facing fees of up to £20,000 a year.

International students are willing to pay such fees, for now, because the UK’s best universities rank amongst the best on earth. With access criteria designed to ensure global competitiveness and attract the best and brightest from around the world, universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College et al are maintaining their global position despite the slump in the UK’s relative performance in secondary education exams.

However, if we start channelling less capable students into these institutions in the name of ‘fairness’, what do we think will happen?

For a start, the universities will have to expend ever more time and resources bringing their entry-level students up to the standards required for rigorous undergraduate study. It is also probable that the standards of attainment by graduates will fall as people who weren’t ready pass through the system.

Sure, in domestic terms the government can undoubtedly nobble these results: we will doubtless start seeing ‘value added’ degrees to maintain the illusion of attainment if the likes of Ebdon have their way. But in international terms, our comparative results will slump.

Much more directly than secondary education results, this will matter. If our universities are not internationally competitive, they won’t attract the same quality or volume of international students. The cost in global connexions and revenue could be astronomical.

Once the universities lose this lucrative source of funding, the only ways to make up the shortfall will be higher fees for students or higher taxes on the general population.  Poorer students will find themselves taking on more debt for degrees whose value is decaying.

All in the name of ‘fair access’.

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It's secondary education that needs to get real, Mr Ebdon

Written by Henry Hill | Wednesday 22 February 2012

If one phrase were needed to sum up all that is wrong with the choice of Les Ebdon as ‘Fair Access’ Czar of British universities, it must be this:

“I don’t think universities can just say: ‘Oh well it is because they are doing the wrong GCSEs’… Universities have to deal with the world as it is rather than the world as we would want.”

What he means is that universities should not be allowed to maintain high standards and insist on schools meeting them. Instead, universities should supplicate themselves to whatever mania is sweeping the teacher training colleges at the time.

Ironically, Ebdon’s policies mark the latest in the public education sector’s long march away from anything resembling ‘the real world’.

As I wrote in June, this sort of thinking is the result of the ‘progressive’ education establishment’s attempt to combine its love for fashionable theories with the terrible results when those theories are field tested.

Instead of adopting more effective teaching methods, to which much of the teaching profession has developed a certain ideological antipathy, state educators realised that they had another option: move the goalposts that marked success.

This started with the concept of ‘value added’ results. In essence, where schools had to deal with ‘disadvantaged’ groups such as ethnic minorities, immigrants or the poor, educators demanded that grades and league table positions reflect how well they thought they had done, given the poor materials to hand. Instead of seeing these children as challenges, they sought excuses.

But all these illusory achievements count for little when universal standards are applied, as in university applications. Because no matter how hard state educators insist that one child’s Cs are equivalent to another’s As because the first child is black or poor, in the ‘real world’ so beloved of Professor Ebdon a C is still a C and an A is still an A. Grade inflation notwithstanding, of course.

Once again, instead of renouncing failing methods ‘progressive’ educators are instead trying to lower the bar. It is our world class universities that must adapt ‘to the real world’, not our many unsatisfactory secondary schools.

Yet even if you crowbar these children into universities, they still aren’t properly equipped for the experience. Some universities already have to dedicate time in first year to equipping students with the sort of basic skills they should have developed during their A Levels.

These students will be accruing tens of thousands of pounds of debt to acquire second- or third-rate qualifications, all the while denying a place to a more capable student and weakening the strength and international competitiveness of British higher education.

Yet how far can this fantasy be sustained? What happens when these students hit the employment market and find that the illusory value-added grades they’ve been given by lazy educators aren’t actually worth the same as qualifications acquired through impartial assessment and intellectual rigour?

Will the next generation of Ebdons insist on ‘value-added’ degrees, and that employers must deal with the world ‘as it really is, not as they would wish it to be’? Will employers be forbidden from ‘discriminating’ against such qualifications?

It sounds totally outlandish. But following the logic of Ebdon’s appointment, it no longer sounds impossible.

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What turns doctors into tyrants?

Written by Henry Hill | Wednesday 15 February 2012

The British Medical Association has called for the government to ban all smoking in cars. This follows a similar call from the Royal College of Physicians a few years ago.

The British medical lobby has had an epiphany. Why should they have to worry about adapting to the shifting nature of Britain’s healthcare needs – which reeks of the unwelcome prospect of change – when they can instead simply demand that the government outlaw things that are making us ill?

Allowing people the freedom to do harmful things, and thus to contribute to ‘preventable death’ statistics, is anathema. I mean, if the entire nation were the prisoners of good doctors we would all live much longer.
That very phrase, ‘preventable death’, is symbolic of the problem. It reeks of a ‘something must be done!’ attitude towards people’s lifestyle choices that indicates a widespread disregard on the part of the medical authorities and much of the commentariat for the capacity of ordinary people to make their own decisions.

Of course, nobody will own up to this sort of old-fashioned, paternalist elitism. After all, progressives are meant to respect the working man and woman. Looking down on the ‘great unwashed’ and making moralistic judgements about them is what Tories are meant to do.

So instead, other reasons are found. Sometimes they are small and particular – for example, the car smoking ban is supposed to be about protecting children, even though advocates want to apply it to single drivers as well – and all this on the basis of an almost certainly apocryphal ’26 times the death’ statistic.

More often the reasons are big and sweeping, and none comes bigger than ‘cost to the NHS’. It’s pretty perverse: on the one hand, we insist that our social conscience will not permit anybody, for any reason, to fall beyond the safety net of the state; while on the other we try to claw back as much money as we can by stripping them of freedoms which may weigh heavily on our social treasury.

I’ve written at length about how a certain species of leftist will turn a safety net into a straightjacket and use the NHS as a highly effective basis for authoritarian government. Yet this is really just the logical outworking of the fact that the freedom-minded have almost totally lost the cultural battle about whether or not adult citizens of a country should be respected as such.

That’s the real battle. Important as the individual policy struggles for liberty are, they’ll continue to resemble endless rematches of Canute vs. the Tide unless public perceptions on personal liberty can be fundamentally shifted. Otherwise, each and every state-cutting measure will come with a ‘preventable death’ toll, and progressives will continue to paint liberty as murder-by-omission.

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What a regulated free press would look like

Written by Henry Hill | Monday 13 February 2012

If you want to try to judge the shape of a proposed censorship regime, there are few better methods than observing the sort of people who are cheer-leading the scheme. Although of course all forms of censorship are anathema to libertarians, the exact nature of the threat is always worth divining.

The inspiration for this post was last week's Question Time, the panel of which consisted of Philip Hammond, Alastair Campbell, Shirley Williams, Steve Coogan and Ann Leslie. One of the sections was whether or not the post-Leveson press needed statutory regulation. The two champions of censorship on the panel were Coogan and Campbell, who took the view that some form of independent regulation of the press was necessary in order to restrain the worst criminal practises.

The two most vocal opponents were Shirley Williams and Ann Leslie. Ms Leslie in particular drew on her extensive experience as a foreign correspondent to warn that wherever she want, the Minister of Information is always in favour of a ‘responsible’ free press, and that a truly free press is fundamental to democracy. Her views were not really permitted to count, however, because she committed the egregious career-sin of writing for the Daily Mail. This brings me to my main point.

Both Campbell and Coogan spent a good portion of the show playing for cheap applause by lambasting the Daily Mail and that other great liberal-left Satan, News International. Scarcely a question could go by without some cheap joke at the Mail’s expense. Defending censorship, Coogan querulously queried whether or not we could have a ‘free press’ when Rupert Murdoch owned so large a share of it (the answer is yes).

As I’ve argued in the past, the Mail and especially the Murdoch papers have such a large readership not because of any great corporate conspiracy but because their papers are very popular. Murdoch only owns three national papers, no more than the Mirror Group. It is just that more people like – and buy, of their own free will – his output. This infuriates a certain species of Guardian reader (although not all of them) who genuinely believe that their tastes and preferences should carry more weight than that of the ordinary public. The fact that their newspaper of choice has to be propped up by Auto Trader and has the lowest circulation of any quality daily baffles and infuriates them.

Like fast food and cigarettes, they view right-wing journalism as a morally debilitating opiate upon which the masses have become cruelly hooked. So what’s needed is statutory regulation that will afford a narrow band of elitists the opportunity to ‘correct’ the market tendency towards journalism they dislike. It is inevitable that any censorship regime, however well-meaning, will be informed by the prejudices of its enforcers. We must not allow the political class to make the same mess of the press that they make of so much else.

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Could industrial ‘patriarchy’ survive the market?

Written by Henry Hill | Friday 10 February 2012

Conspiracy theorists like their threats to be fundamentally phantom. After all, if you stake your pride and credibility on something that can be empirically tested, you risk being proved wrong and having to adjust your world view. This was certainly the case with the more committed species of campus feminist I encountered at university. Patriarchy to them was not something with any demonstrable limit – it was a vast, secret conspiracy on the part of the male sex covering all aspects of live and explaining everything.

Every instance of disproportionate male involvement was a result of this evanescent injustice. Even the student council – elections to which were riddled with enough ‘positive’ discriminatory measures to make a meritocrat’s eyes bleed – had a fairly narrow male majority, which was taken as proof positive that more work was needed. The idea that the playing field might actually be fairly level, and the disparities the result of other factors and individual preferences, was anathema.

The same thinking lies behind Harriet Harman’s obsession with boardroom representation, which has recently taken hold of the mind of the Prime Minister. The argument runs that lots of hard-working, economically productive women are being passed over purely on the grounds of their sex, and this is costing the British economy £40bn a year. Now, the Telegraph’s James Delingpole has handily skewered the laughable notion that politicians are simply foisting unwanted profit on short-sighted businesses. But it’s worth considering how ridiculously extensive this patriarchal conspiracy Harman and others subscribe to must be.

Let’s imagine we have ten businesses competing for the same market. If we are spectacularly ungenerous to the male sex (as to get into Harriet Harman’s brain we must surely be) let’s assume that nine of those businesses are run by real, conviction sexists who consciously exclude capable women on the grounds that they’re women. This leaves a vast talent pool available to the tenth business, which presumably can lap up these highly capable workers. If sexism was depressing their wages as well, then this business would have a significant competitive advantage over the competition.

How long would rival businesses really keep deliberately hiring inferior labour at inflated prices out of allegiance to the principle of sexism? It would only take one company in a competitive market to break the ranks of chauvinist solidarity for such arbitrary and costly employment practises to be rendered totally unaffordable.

There are all kinds of reasons for differing employment patterns between men and women, including different priorities, working hours, child-rearing and so forth that have firm bases in business sense.
To ascribe these differences to an omnipresent, more-important-that-profit sexist conspiracy, one must believe the entire spectrum of business subscribes to the exclusion of women at the expense of their own industrial and economic interests. That they literally looked at the ‘profits’ David Cameron is waving in front of them and decided that, if the cost was employing women, £40bn wasn’t for them. Let’s hope nobody ever shows Cameron ‘Loose Change’.

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Don't abolish the pension, abolish the pension age

Written by Henry Hill | Thursday 09 February 2012

Once, when I was on the radio during the autumn’s public sector trouble, a teacher representing the trade union activists who were due to go on strike at midnight that night countered one of my arguments by saying that he was striking for “people like me”. By this he meant ‘young people who are going to have to work longer than us for smaller pensions.’ The thing is, I couldn’t see any injustice in my generation having to work longer. We’re going to live longer, too. It is absurd to suggest that the generation graduating university in 2011 should be expected to retire at the same age as people who entered the job market in the Sixties and Seventies.

Yet that is precisely what this man was proposing: regardless of advances in life expectancy and medical science, each generation should demand to spend no more time in work than the preceding one and each should enjoy a longer and longer retirement. With life expectancy increasing, it is likely that most people my age will never be able to afford a worthwhile annuity and will be working into our seventies and eighties, maybe our nineties.

Will that be so terrible? In the half century between now and then medical science will have advanced in leaps and bounds. In all likelihood our seventies will be as unrecognisable to the baby boomer generation as their fifties and sixties are to their own parents. The fact is that science is keeping us younger longer, yet we cling to a model of social provision that was designed in the late Forties. The pension was designed to be a small boon to carry people from the end of their working lives to the grave; less a safety net than a stretcher.  It was pitched at roughly the age when people of that era who survived that long were physically incapable of work.

Yet as our life expectancy grew and employment patterns shifted away from manual labour, we invented the concept of a long retirement as our lifespans came to rapidly outstrip the pension age we refused to change. Such pensions are vanishing from the private sector, and as financial reality bites their public sector equivalents will go the same way. We’re living too long to afford them.
The solution is that the government must fundamentally rethink its approach to pensions. It should shift from being seen as an entitlement you reach at a certain fixed age and become a benefit tested against an individual’s personal circumstances.

In short, the very idea of ‘the pension age’ should be abolished. State pensions should become a benefit and be seen as such – when age renders you unable to work, you receive the pension as an out-of-work benefit if you cannot get by on your own means. People would still be free to contribute towards a pension, but with increasing life expectancy annuities are only going to get more prohibitively expensive.

This will hurt. But the era when the British public could use borrowed funds to bridge the gap between acceptable taxation and expectation is over.

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Do students need a union?

Written by Henry Hill | Wednesday 08 February 2012

Pretty much every university student must be at least passingly familiar with their student union. Although the quality of such establishments – and it is as establishments that they are most widely known on campus – varies enormously from place to place, let nobody think that I want to get rid of the student union in its familiar, homely on-campus sense.

But do students really need the other aspects of a union? I mean, they’re called trades unions for a reason, and the student-college relationship is fundamentally different to the employee-employer one.
The relationship between a business and its employees is that the business buys labour with wages. In this relationship the business is the consumer, not the worker – hence the term ‘labour market’. As I argued in my Young Writer on Liberty submission, trade unions parallel business cartels by seeking to restrict supply of a good (labour) in order to inflate prices (wages).

The student-college relationship differs from this in that it is the student, not the college, that is the consumer. We purchase a university education, including access to teachers, libraries and online material, from a university via our tuition fees. This would suggest that what students need is not a ‘union’ but a ‘Which?’-style consumer champion.

Is this distinction important? Or am I simply playing around with semantics?

During my time at the University of Manchester I got quite well-acquainted with the workings of the fairly large executive council of the student union. I found that these positions could be divided between the useful - those that focused on students’ relationship with the university, each other, oversaw events and societies or government welfare – and the big-budget playthings of political poseurs.

On the one hand, it is certainly true that the work of the former – the welfare, student societies and academic-related officers – could be carried out as effectively under the auspices of a ‘union’ as anything else. On the other, in my view many of the problems in the ‘student movement’ – another awful term – stem from the casting of student interests in the trades union mould.

For example, student leaders fundamentally misinterpret the nature of student problems – and the solutions to those problems – by viewing the issue through the prism of labour relations rather than consumer relations: for example, supporting lecturer strikes and other measures out of ‘solidarity’ when they are not in the interests of current students as consumers of education.

As I argued in the Manchester student paper, the idea of a student ‘strike’ having any discernible impact on a university is absurd because students pay universities once a year and aren’t willing to get kicked out for non-payment. What then is the student equivalent of a withdrawal of labour?

A total waste of money, that’s what.

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Would an independent Scotland sink or swim?

Written by Henry Hill | Tuesday 07 February 2012

As the United Kingdom approaches its date with destiny and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the debate surrounding the possible shape of a post-Union Scotland are only going to get fiercer. What Scotland might look like outside the United Kingdom, whether Scandinavian utopia or isolated backwater, is one of the key fronts on which the battle for the hearts and minds of Scottish voters will be fought.

Alex Salmond’s vision, designed to maximise separation’s appeal, is of a Scotland with options: joining the Euro; membership of the Common Market without the single currency; keeping the pound. All intended to give the impression that an independent Scotland would be the master of its own economic destiny.

Yet there are good grounds for suspicion that this is not the case. For a start, it is unlikely that Scotland would be able to claim automatic membership of the European Union as the SNP often claim.

In the instance of Scottish independence, the continuity-UK would almost certainly qualify for ‘successor state’ status under international law, due to possessing (much) more than 50% of the territory and population of the United Kingdom as presently constituted.

Thus the UK would retain its identity and membership, leaving none for Scotland to inherit. Were Scotland to then apply for membership in its own right, there are further hurdles. The UK’s treasured opt-out from the single currency is not offered to new members; likewise the option of joining the European Economic Area without acceding to the EU.

Thus Scotland would either have to join the EU, single currency and all, or not at all. Even assuming the SNP retained their former enthusiasm for the single currency and took the plunge, there’s no guarantee they’d be accepted. Spain, Italy and Belgium are all wrestling with their own separatist movements and will not want to establish the precedent of secessionists gaining EU membership – see Spain’s position vis-à-vis Kosovo.

If not Europe, then what? In an effort to soften the blow for soft-unionist Scots, the SNP are keen to stress the links that they would seek to retain with the UK. Scotland could, the nationalists argue, keep the pound, and British submarines could still be stationed at Faslane to fend off the fear of defence cuts.

Assuming all this was true (and in the case of defence it almost certainly isn’t), Scotland on the pound would be tied to the British economy without having a say in the governance of it, while trying to keep whole communities going via sustaining now-foreign military bases.

The SNP thus risk locking Scotland out of the UK without breaking free from it. As the pro-Union campaign put it, there are polities outside the UK with similar relationships. Until recently, they were called ‘dependencies’.

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Devolving to freedom? Libertarians and localism

Written by Henry Hill | Friday 16 September 2011

On the whole, in what I consider to be a baffling divergence from best tenets of the ideology, most libertarians I have met support devolution and the right to secede. This fetish for the local mistakes group sovereignty for individual liberty, and can most clearly be seen as an influence on libertarian thinking in the United States, where Ron Paul and others cite states’ rights and independence as their cure to the ‘imperialism of central government’.

I disagree completely with this approach. Local government has to possess coercive powers to force those subject to it to obey its edicts, and in my view no libertarian system of government actually leaves room for local government on any level.

Why should it? A libertarian government is at its core a legal framework for the defence of right and property. It is my belief that libertarians should aspire for all people to possess equal negative liberty, and equal levels of liberty can only be ensured by a centralised libertarian administration. The justification for local government is that it allows government to be different to suit local wishes – but under a libertarian system people do not have the right to coerce their neighbours, whose freedoms are protected, and the only outcome possible is differing levels of freedom across different areas.

Given that the proper defence of freedom and property is undertaken by the central, minarchist libertarian state, there remains no area in which a libertarian local government could properly legislate. Any action undertaken by a local government could only impinge upon liberty more than is necessary, and is thus an un-libertarian action.

The waters are muddied further by the problem of demarcating the areas and groups granted such autonomy. For example, if Wales voted to secede from the United Kingdom, why should inhabitants of Wales who voted against that policy be forced out of the UK? The legitimacy of ‘Wales’ as an entity might not be something they subscribe to, and no libertarian state should allow people to lay claim to others against their individual will on the basis of group identity.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but libertarians should be centralisers. Both nationalists and localists are enemies of universal liberty, which must surely be our ideal. A patchwork of petty tyrannies informed by local ballot is not libertarian in the slightest.

Henry Hill is the winner of the 2011 Young Writer on Liberty Award. He blogs at http://dilettante11.blogspot.com/.

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The tobacco-stained torch

Written by Henry Hill | Wednesday 14 September 2011

cig

During debates on the smoking ban, freedom is often invoked by both sides. On the one hand, your smoker or smoking-supporter argues that surely they should have the freedom to smoke wherever they like. On the other, supporters of the ban counter that it is unfair to subject non-smokers to tobacco smoke, and all its inherent risks, against their will just because they wish to be in a particular public area. Why should the right to smoke trump the right to be free of smoke?

That argument is probably one for the philosophers, and I’m not much interested in it because a policy solution to the problem does not require it to be answered. Libertarianism offers a perfectly just and amicable solution to the smoking dispute without the need for any intervention by the state at all. As with so many things, the solution is property.

The decision about whether or not smoking should be permitted or prohibited in a particular bar, restaurant or place of work should be entirely at the discretion of the owner of that property. This is a fundamentally just solution. After all, why should a smoke-averse individual who wishes to be in a particular bar trump the wishes of the owner of that premise, who smokes and like smokers? Similarly, what smoker could assert the right to smoke in a premise where the owner has forbidden it? Not only is this system just, but it also allows the market to find the balance between smoking and non-smoking venues. After all, smokers and non-smokers will both constitute consumer markets, generating demand for facilities in which they can either smoke or avoid smoke. The invisible hand will provide smoking, non-smoking and mixed facilities in the proportion to which they are required by the habits of the population. Property rights are upheld, and each side gets what it wants.

The only potential contested ground lies in the remaining grey area, ‘public spaces’. There are two kinds. The first is government property, which does not pose a serious problem as the government can exercise its right as property holder to ban or permit smoking the same as any other. The second, and more problematic, kind is public areas that are ‘held in common’ by or for the people. Should the government be treated as property holder in this instance, or should it not own these areas at all?

Henry Hill is the winner of the 2011 Young Writer on Liberty Award. He blogs at http://dilettante11.blogspot.com/.

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