Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Universalism or targeted services?

I was at a couple of really interesting seminars today in my Faculty (of Social Sciences). The morning one was by Naomi Eisenstadt, Anti-Poverty Adviser to the Scottish Government, with a very impressive CV of involvement in a number of UK policy initiatives. At lunchtime I listened to Prof Anna Vignole discuss her research on graduate outcomes. Both have had widespread news coverage, for very different reasons (see here and here). What linked them both was an interest in how inequalities are replicated and what we can do about them.

I want to particularly focus on Ms Eisenstadt’s talk because of the questions she raised, and has raised to the Scottish Government, regarding universalism vs. targeting of services. On the Left, we’re supposed to hate targeted services for a number of reasons. As my mum was taught on her Social Administration degree in the 1960s, services for the poor are poor services; middle class service-users drive up the general quality of services.* Also, targeted services tend to be stigmatising, such as being “on benefits”.

However, Ms Eisenstadt argued that, given the specific challenges many people face, we do need targeted services. She used the example of Sure Start, which she was heavily involved in. One of the critiques of Sure Start was it was used by middle-class parents, so it failed as it was not targeted enough. Ms Eisenstadt turned this on its head by pointing out its massive success was a policy targeted at the poorest was so successful it attracted the richest.

In my own field, this is sort of how I’d envisage a successful neighbourhoods policy (as I argue in a roundabout way in this article). We would still have concentrations of social housing in specific neighbourhoods, but all the ancillary services would be so good and so tailored that people either wouldn’t think the neighbourhoods were any different, or would actually aspire to live in them.

The trouble is with this, and a point Ms Eisenstadt made very well, is that the sort of progressive expenditure needed to deliver this change is politically very difficult to achieve (as she found in her dealings with the Scottish Government). It’s far easier for politicians to blame poor people and seek behavioural solutions. In the case of neighbourhoods policy for me, it’s blaming poor people for being untidy, rather than actually providing a street-sweeping service that is adequate.

The other problem, that was equally well put, was that policies to change behaviour are very difficult to implement and expensive - it's very hard to tell someone to be a better parent. Policies to redistribute income work and are quite easy to do. I'd add that policies such as better street sweeping, or more teachers in schools and more spending per-pupil in deprived areas, is also a lot easier to do.

This fitted quite well into what Prof Vignoles was saying over lunchtime because of the universalism of higher education provision in Scotland. This is lauded as a great “progressive” policy in Scotland, even though the evidence is fairly consistent that Scotland is not doing as well in getting pupils from schools in deprived neighbourhoods into university, and that the policy disproportionately benefits the wealthier end of the middle classes.

The research raises further questions that need to be considered in Scottish policy debate. As the BBC fairly accurately summarised, the research shows that if you’ve done an arts degree your earning potential is low. If you’ve studied economics you’ll be minted. Higher education seems very bad at closing gaps between people however, so if you’re poor and do economics, you’ll become better-off, but not as well off as someone who was wealthy. In Scotland, if we want higher education to maximise economic growth, and individual outcomes, then we should probably spend a lot more SFC grant on economics and leave the arts to wrack and ruin. The trouble is, students really want to do arts subjects. So, if we did alter investment in subjects in this way, arts subjects could end up with ludicrously high entry requirements (high demand for places, few places to be had) and economics could end up welcoming all-comers for the opposite reason.

Both presentations left with a sense of our failure to discuss – or as academics to enable a discussion – as to what sort of outcomes we want our public services to deliver and how. We have our national outcomes in Scotland like “We have tackled the significant inequalities in Scottish society” but we’ve not said what a more equal society would look like, or more importantly the shape of public services to deliver that. 

* on this point,Ms Eisenstadt made a wonderfully well observed point that when people experiencing poverty get a good service that helps them, they are eternally grateful. The middle classes don't think twice about it as they feel entitled to good services.

1 comment:

  1. Wot, no mention of proportionate universalism?