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the private and social

I paid tuition for the first time today. (£500 on a Bayesian modelling course.) So ends twenty-one years of perfectly gratuitous education.
  • 1995 - 2002: Mediocre primary. Times tables, insect and tadpole lifecycles, forced sports, the globe, the War, playground torture. I remember them running out of maths resources for me in my last year. The world's end. I built Meccano towers instead.

  • 2002 - 2008: Scottish generalism: that is, a weak grounding in everything. Excellent banal German vocabulary, which has stuck with me. Bad maths instruction, merely algorithmic, but going up to complex numbers and basic optimisation. Ordinary literature (Shakespeare, 'Of Mice and Men', 'Handmaid's Tale', Coleridge, MacCaig). Keyboards, saxophone, anacrusis and William Walton. World War I and the Clearances. Memorising Ohm's law and the Krebs cycle. Pissing about with acrylic all afternoon with Radio 1 on. Hundreds of hours doodling mindlessly. I experimented on my peers, getting a null for the short-term Mozart effect.

  • 2008 - 2012: A big old free cafeteria of the Arts. Literature, economics, philosophy, history of science, logic, 'Romanticism' and 'Modernism'. Descartes, Singer, Dickens, Keynes, Turing, Nabokov, Kripke, Searle, Friedman, Marx, Rawls, Arrow, Duhem, Lewis, McCloskey, van Fraassen, Berkeley, Parfit, Easterly, Frege, Lakatos, Nietzsche, Derrida. Specialised in philosophy of science and foreign aid. I didn't work very hard.

  • 2012 - 2016: Second undergraduate in maths. The terror of clarity, the glory of pure truth. Only fundamentals: Descartes, Newton, Hooke, Joule, Cauchy, Fourier, the Bernoullis, Euler, Gauss, de Fermat, Jacobi, Taylor, Gibbs, de Moivre, Galois. (Free because of a political sop to low-income Scottish people, which didn't ask if I already had a degree.)

  • 2014 - 2015: Master's in software, again on a govt scholarship. Glorious unveiling of the other side, rapid and gladdening. Java, Python, SQL, MC8600, crypto, safety and security. Even Machine Learning: computational paralinguistics.

This is about £145,000 worth.* Or, £4.7bn a year for the policy (40% over the present budget), if every child in Scotland was as nerdy and shameless as me.** (Big if.)

I told a coworker this figure and, as a good fiscal dove, he was horrified - until he recalled that "at least you were working for most of that". True: even with state largesse, I still worked about 11 years out of these 21.

I doubt my paper round or my waitering offset the damage, and I doubt he thought it did. What really worried him was the menacing eternal student, who never gets over himself, never stops fearing the long dull throb of work, and who continues to take from others indefinitely.

So? Am I a rent-seeker? (The economist's word for sinner.)

The liberal, humanist response is that an educated citizenry produces huge noneconomic social returns, like critical thought or voluntarism or political purpose or empathy or taste or cultural continuity ("pass it on!").*** Education is for them another way to convert money into public goods.

I have no idea if this is generally true - I was a critical voluntarist before university, the most empathetic people I know did not go to university, and most of my arts peers emerged with none of these things - but I can tell you I had a very good time. And this, the self-justifying private fulfilment, gives me reason to worry about society's end of the bargain. It'd be very convenient if what (bookish and middle-class) people found most personally fulfilling was also the best thing for all.

You should distinguish private returns (pay, increased confidence, increased knowledge, increased social capital for you) from social returns (productivity, political contributions, cultural reproduction if you like).


The reason to pay particular attention to the economic side of the social return is, not that money is the only thing, or the most important thing, but because anything that doesn't give economic returns to the whole can't be kept up indefinitely. Or, not without trading off against something more important, like social care, or life-giving research, or (let me dream) foreign aid.

I'll try and actually answer the question I just raised when Caplan's big book finally comes out and I can evaluate it for the UK market.


* About £4k per primary education year per child (£28k), in the 1990s budget. About £6k per secondary education year (£36k). About £15k per tertiary education year (£60k).^ About £15k per postgraduate education year (£15k). Half an Open Uni degree costs a Scotsman £3k and the Scottish government about £5k (£24m annual budget / 15,000 students * 3 years part-time).^^

^ This, the total private + social cost of uni, was hard to dig up. Per graduate in England, it's about £45,000 : £27k from fees and £18k from maintenance and loans. I've just used this English figure, bumped up to four years. £45k / 3 years = £15k per year.

^^ This is not counting the opportunity cost of foregoing 5 years of work, £50k-100k in private costs, and maybe the same again in "public" costs (productivity). Nor does it count whatever the opportunity cost is of 20,000 hours of your youth, legally confiscated from you.

Nor does it count the most dramatic counterfactual: the government just giving you the money they would have spent on you, after 20 years of investment growth:
what if the government had taken this figure and invested it in the stock market at the moment of your birth? Today when you graduate college, they remove it from the stock market, put it in a low-risk bond, put a certain percent of the interest from that bond into keeping up with inflation, and hand you the rest each year as a basic income guarantee. How much would you have?

And I calculate that the answer would be $15,000 a year, adjusted for interest. We can add the $5,800 basic income guarantee we could already afford onto that for about $20,000 a year, for everyone. Black, white, man, woman, employed, unemployed, abled, disabled, rich, poor. Welcome to the real world, it’s dangerous to go alone, take this. What, you thought we were going to throw you out to sink or swim in a world where if you die you die in real life? Come on, we’re not that cruel.

So when we ask whether your education is worth it, we have to compare what you got – an education that puts you one grade level above the uneducated and which has informed 3.3% of you who Euclid is – to what you could have gotten. 20,000 hours of your youth to play, study, learn to play the violin, whatever. And $20,000 a year, sweat-free.
** 145k / 21 years = 6.7k per year
6.7k per year * 680,000 kids = £4.7 bn.

This compares unfavourably to the present £3.3bn education budget.

*** The private noneconomic return to uni is enormous, larger than the huge private economic return, for some people. e.g. An effect that I think is larger than the classical social virtue promotion bit above is that 4 years of relative freedom, away from home, surrounded by bright horny people is simply very good for your later worldview and life goals and mental health. Because you get space to build yourself new. Or if not to build, then to locate yourself in culture, philosophy, and personality space.


The above could be taken as an argument for fees: "the individual plausibly benefits more than society, so let them cough up a bit". But substantial fees are pretty much a shitshow, certainly in the high-interest, cartelized form that exist England and America, where the prices are uniform and useless. But (if we cannot tear down this credentialist bullshit, as below) then certainly a graduate tax is fully justified.

Rather, we should sap the cultural and economic hegemony of higher education - make it so that young people don't need a degree to get decent jobs, or in fact most jobs (besides doctor and pilot and so on). In extremis, we could make education a protected category in job interviews. Instead, we would rely on actual portfolios, entry tests, and work trials (which are open to all and actually measure the relevant quantities) instead of pompous paper. (Aptitude tests are illegal in some American industries, so you'd have to reverse that first.) This would be a more powerful intervention against inequality than free fees, because it would catch the many smart people who do not fit the conformist examination form of 'training'.

Only something as radical as this could stop students defecting against each other and continuing the ruinous cycle. (Besides making education level a discriminatory question, a full basic income would work, too.)

The problem with equalising the status of graduates and nongraduates is that higher education is fêted by absolutely bloody everyone: parents, governments, giant corporations, reptilian economists, frothing radicals, whether anarchists, neoliberals, or Juche cadres. (Everyone except a minority of libertarians.) The uniqueness of its cross-cultural appeal means that it is presently the only way that young people can possibly get 4 years of relative freedom to locate themselves, and to do so surrounded by people from all around the world, and to do so in an atmosphere which rewards many kinds of deviance.

You could maybe do this by funding (voluntary) international service; basically giving working-class kids some gap years, too. The cult of travel is nearly as powerful as the cult of uni, after all.