A Role for Philosophy in Policy Making

7 Jun 2018 - 14:45


The #FMF debate has been dominated by calls for completely free higher education for all, or at least for a larger proportion of students. Such funding models, however, would create material unfairness and divert scarce resources away from projects more likely to combat inequality. They also would risk undermining social cohesion through divisive and stigmatising means testing. These were some of the points Dr George Hull, a member of PII’s workstream on social cohesion, made during a day of expert testimony to the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (Fees Commission). Dr Hull has been advocating for a universal loan model with income contingent repayment as the fairest and most efficient way of ensuring adequate access to higher education without undermining social cohesion.

Dr Hull, a senior lecturer in UCT’s Department of Philosophy, believes that policy making and public policy research require input from philosophers: “Philosophy gives you a set of skills to make clear conceptual distinctions, and to spot flaws of reasoning in public debates. But there are no ready-made solutions waiting within philosophy. Our place in policy making is as just one part of a much broader process involving public consultation, empirical findings and political compromise.”

Dr Hull’s presentation to the Fees Commission measured different higher education funding models against the fundamental values of Fairness, Access, Equality, Efficiency and Freedom. The Commission acknowledged these as constitutional values and adopted them in its reasoning. Drawing on research in political philosophy, Dr Hull showed that an Income-contingent Loans (student loans) option would live up to these values better than three other proposed funding models – Free Higher Education, Differential Fees and Graduate Tax.

A cohesive society of equals

Dr Hull, who has recently edited a collection of philosophical essays on egalitarianism, believes that values such as equality should inform the kind of social cohesion we aim for in South Africa.

“People make the mistake of thinking social cohesion is always a good thing,” he says. “But if everybody is trusting and co-operative in an extremely unjust or hierarchical society, it can actually be a big problem because it puts a brake on the necessary processes of contestation and upheaval.”

In Dr Hull’s view, South African policy makers should aim to foster “a form of social cohesion which is compatible with values such as fairness, freedom and equality – a cohesive society of equals.” To be avoided are “forms of social cohesion based on groundless deference and obedience, or conformism, of which there are too many examples in history.”

These ideas informed the working paper, ‘Defining Social Cohesion’, which Dr Hull collaborated on with other members of the Poverty & Inequality Initiative. The paper was the first in a series for a research project on the relationship between social cohesion and inequality in South Africa. The definition of social cohesion proposed in the working paper was used to develop a Social Cohesion Index to measure this aspect of the nation’s well-being.

A fairness deficit

In his work on higher education funding, Dr Hull has pointed out that completely free higher education would be an unfair funding model.

Specifically, it would not be just to the vast majority of South Africans who never go to university but do pay tax: “Only about one in 10 South Africans currently attains the advantage of a university degree, and it is not fair for non-graduates’ tax contributions to be funding a huge competitive advantage in the job market for the one in 10.”

Means testing a barrier to social cohesion

On the other hand, making higher education free for some students but not others by using a means test to determine who qualifies for aid will have serious drawbacks: “Means testing for family assets is clumsy, inaccurate, expensive, open to corruption, humiliating and often stigmatises those on the receiving end of it – as is clear from students’ stated experiences of means testing for NSFAS loans.”

“Means testing makes people feel exposed to excessive scrutiny, that they are objects of suspicion who cannot be trusted and hence are not respected – while those who are better off are not subjected to the same treatment. It has been observed in countries with means tests for social benefits that this approach leads to a sense of social inequality even though the goal is to uplift people to material equality.”

To create a cohesive society of equals, universal benefits – such as student loans with universal eligibility – are often preferable to means-tested benefits.

Balancing individual and public interests

Higher education is both an individual good and a public good, wrote Dr Hull in an article for The Conversation: “… its status as an individual good means higher education should not be fully funded by the state. Equally, its status as a public good means it should not be fully funded by student fees.” 

He proposed that a government-backed student loans policy offers a sensible middle way between two flawed alternatives. Furthermore, rather than taking money away from social priorities such as health care and basic education, this model funds “higher education expansion with money from the future”.

Dr Hull explains that “almost all South Africans who complete an undergraduate degree are guaranteed employment and high lifetime earnings. This means they can afford to pay their share of the costs of their qualification.” He believes, therefore, that “poor students shouldn’t be paying university fees – but the rich graduates they’ll become should, once they are reaping the financial and other rewards of a degree.”

A funding policy for a cohesive society of equals

The Fees Commission considered testimony from students, vice chancellors, economists and educationists. But it also saw the importance of including a philosopher’s perspective in its consultative process.

Chapter 34 of its report, the decisive chapter in which the Commission tests the rationales for different funding models, draws extensively on Dr Hull’s written and oral testimony. It echoes his conclusion that Income-contingent Loans is a funding model which scores on all the relevant values – Access, Efficiency, Freedom, Fairness and Equality – while the other three models are lacking on one or more of these values. 

Although then President Jacob Zuma rejected the Fees Commission’s recommendation of an income-contingent loan model with universal access, Dr Hull remains hopeful that the Commission’s report will ultimately form the basis for national policy. 

Article by: Charmaine Smith, PII communication manager, June 2018