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Book launch. Financing Higher Education: answers from the UK by Nicholas Barr and Iain Crawford

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Friday 28 January, 1-3pm
Shaw Library, 6th floor, Old Building

Nicholas Barr| and Iain Crawford: Financing Higher Education: answers from the UK
London and New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-34857-9

For 16 years, Nicholas Barr[1] and Iain Crawford[2] worked together to reform the finance of higher education - from the late 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and Kenneth Baker secretary of state for education, to the passage of the 2004 Higher Education Act, championed by Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, based largely on Barr and Crawford's work. 

Financing Higher Education, just published, is a selection of their writing from 1987 onwards. The volume contains articles in academic journals both in the UK and abroad, evidence to government inquiries and Parliamentary Select Committees, an various of their newspaper articles[3], together with a new opening chapter which reviews the period as a whole, and a new concluding chapter which draws together key lessons for the future and for other countries. 

The book commemorates a remarkable partnership between an academic economist and a media savvy political pro, with a shared passion to improve higher education and widen access. It also commemorates a remarkable friendship. Without their combined skills and mutual trust, the reforms would not have happened as they did. 

The opening chapter tells the story of the campaign, dividing it into three periods: the late 1980s, when the hot topic was whether to have student loans at all; the mid-1990s, when the Dearing Report introduced income-contingent loans[4] for which Barr and Crawford had been campaigning for ten years; and the period from 2002-04. Two lessons stand out: 

  • Economic theory is powerful: a paper written 1989 (Chapter 5 of the book) says it all - there is nothing Barr and Crawford said last year that was not in the 1989 paper.
  • But ideas are not enough. The book illustrates how often and for how long an idea has to be pressed before it gets onto the statute book. 

The final chapter offers two sets of messages, one about policy, one about the politics of reform. The policy discussion offers a universal model - a strategy for any country which can collect income tax, and hence collect loan repayments. The strategy has three elements:

  • Deferred variable fees, which promote quality by bringing more resources into higher education and, by increasing competition, by improving the efficiency with which those resources are used. Variable fees are also fairer than other approaches. 
  • A good student loan scheme, which has income-contingent repayments and offers loans large enough to cover all fees and realistic living costs. Thus higher education is free at the point of use (students get it free - it is the graduate who makes repayments). Thus students are no longer poor, nor forced to rely on parental contributions; and they are unimpaled from expensive credit card debt and overdrafts. 
  • Active measure to promote access. Later chapters stress repeatedly that, though grants are important, the real barriers to access come long before university. Measures to address the problem include money (eg. Education Maintenance Allowances[5]), but also information (eg. action to demystify higher education and to raise aspirations). 

The final chapter also reflects on lessons for the politics of reform:

  • Get a network. Reform inevitable has many links and interactions. In the case of higher education, these include politicians, MPs, the Education Department, the Treasury, the tax authorities, the National Statistics Office, the vice-chancellors, the Student Loans Company and the National Union of Students.
  • Get broad support, both across political parties and across the elements of the network.
  • Get a tripod. Successful reform depends on a tripod of skills: strategic policy design, political implementation, and administrative/technical implementation. When working for the Hungarian government, these three legs were represented, respectively, by Barr, Crawford and Colin Ward of Hugh Macadie from the Student Loans Company. Whenever one of them said anything about his patch, he would constantly be looking for nods from the others to confirm that what he said fitted with their part of the puzzle. 
  • Get a lot of patience. If all the elements are in place (Australia 1989, Hungary 2001) reform can be quick. Otherwise (the UK) it will take a long time. For which reason:
  • Get a life, for times when the higher education debate is not politically salient. 

Professor Nick Barr said: 'Why, in conclusion, is any of this important? It is important because higher education matters. In today's world it is an essential element in national economic performance. And it has a major bearing on a person's life chances. Thus the model takes as its starting point the imperative of access for all who have the ability and desire. It frees resources, allows competition between universities and - centrally - harnesses rather than wastes the talent of the people. Many policies require painful choices between efficiency and social justice. This one enhances both.'


Notes to editors:

1. Nicholas Barr is professor of public economics at LSE. 

2. Iain Crawford was head of public relations at LSE. He died after a long illness in March 2004. 

3. Newspaper articles appeared in the Financial Times, Independent, Guardian, Times, Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education Supplement.

4. With conventional loans like a mortgage, repayments are (say) £100 per month; with income-contingent loans, repayments are x per cent of the graduate's subsequent earnings, collected alongside income tax or national insurance contributions, until the borrower has repaid what he or she borrowed. 

5.  Education Maintenance Allowances encourage pupils from poor families to stay at school. The scheme includes a £30 weekly allowance to young people aged 16 and over, plus periodic bonuses where recipients keep to the terms of a learning agreement with their school or college. 

6. The cartoon on the book's cover is from an article by the authors in the Times Higher Education Supplement (pp114-17 of the book) about Kenneth Baker's 'ticking time bomb' for the Treasury, hence 'Barr and Crawford: Bomb Disposal' on the side of the red van. 

Press cuttings

The Independent - Education and Career Supplement
Diary (10 Feb 05)
A memorial service-cum-celebration for the gurus of top up fees, Nick Barr and Iain Crawford was held at LSE. Crawford died last year, but a book has been published of his and Barr's writings that shows how long it took for their idea to take hold. Before the idea was accepted the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills has been adamantly opposed. Barr said that he and Crawford 'were a couple of oiks taking on the might of the government'.
No direct link

£10k? That'll do nicely (1 Feb 05)
Looking at higher education bursaries. Nicholas Barr, LSE, and architect of the fees and loans scheme, comments on the lack of spin, or even straight explanation, from the Department for Education and Skills. Reference to Financing Higher Education - Answers From the UK, published on Friday, by Barr and Iain Crawford.

27 January 2005