18 May 2015

Joseph Stiglitz is talking rubbish


Is there anything as poisonous to rational debate as the tossed-off opinions of a half-informed Nobel laureate? The halo effect of the prize ensures that everything its recipients say thereafter is taken as gospel, even when they’re talking codswallop.

Take Joseph Stiglitz, the eminent former chief economist of the World Bank and chairman of the US president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Now, Joe reckons he’s a bit of an expert on Scotland. In 2012, he agreed to be a member of the SNP Government’s Fiscal Commission Working Group, to “establish a fiscal and macro economic framework for an independent Scotland”. Inevitably, this was treated by Alex Salmond as if he’d discovered a golden ticket to the Wonka factory. A real live Nobel Prize Winner! Wooh!

In fact, Stiglitz’s role seems to have amounted to little more than that of the useful idiot, adding a patina of global leftie respectability to a half-witted case that fell apart on first contact with last year’s independence referendum. It’s no exaggeration to say that the economic argument presented for a separate Scotland was the most risible and self-harming part of the Yes campaign.

Still, this slight setback hasn’t put Joe off. He popped up on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on BBC Radio 4 on Monday to argue that Scotland is drifting apart from the rest of the UK economically, philosophically and politically.

“Nothing illustrates that more than the attitude towards, say, education and university education,” he informed us. “…we’re talking to access and mobility. What is the likelihood of someone from the bottom making it to the top? Education, we know, is a critical part to the access and mobility. If universities are very expensive then it’s very hard for people at the bottom making it to the top.”

When Marr (a Scot) ventured the information that English schools are in fact ‘doing slightly better’ than Scottish schools, he was given short shrift.

“When I was up in Scotland… they wanted a kind of economic system where there was going to be not only that kind of equality of opportunity but also where the government can take a more active role in promoting a more green economy and promoting job creation.”

Now, Stiglitz has more than 40 honorary doctorates, at least eight honorary professorships and was chairman of the UN Commission on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System. I once asked Margaret Thatcher which was her favourite Spice Girl. But cant is cant, and must be called out regardless of how many ribbons one’s protagonist sports on his chest.

So let’s be clear. The famed Scottish education system is no longer something to be proud of. That is why Nicola Sturgeon is desperately attempting to ape the past decade’s reforms to schools in London that have seen academic achievement soar among its poorest children. In Scotland, recent statistics showed a drop of 102,000 pupils passing exams in the past year, while numeracy skills among children from deprived backgrounds are falling. Only 25% of disadvantaged kids in second year at high school have the numeracy skills they should.

Then there is the “free university education” myth. Unlike in England, Scotland refuses to charge students university tuition fees (this includes all EU students, unless they’re English, in which case they must pay). This is an article of faith among the Scottish left, which insists it ensures young people from poorer backgrounds will not be put off going into higher education because of the fear of large debts. But the Scottish left is as wrong about this as it is about most things. Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a former senior civil servant in the Scottish government, has undertaken research that shows Scotland now has the lowest rate of grants in western Europe; that spending on income-related student grants has almost halved in real terms since the SNP took office in 2007; and that Scotland is the only part of the UK where borrowing is highest among students from poorer backgrounds.

For young students in full-time higher education, “the net effect of policy decisions over the decade to 2015-16 will be a resource transfer from low income to high income households,” she says. The same is true of the policy of free medical prescriptions, which is an appalling middle-class subsidy at a time of economic scarcity. This ideological determination to provide as many public services as possible for “free” (really a Nationalist ploy to engender the cultural difference that so enthralls Stiglitz) has come at the cost of slashed budgets for further education colleges – which are, of course, the traditional destination for many underprivileged school leavers. Oh well.

You might think that the longed-for Scottish Parliament would have spent the first 15 years of its existence on a mission to make the nation’s education system the best on the planet. After all, education and health were the two main public policy areas under Holyrood’s purview. But instead, the time has been wasted on endless constitutional debates and constant whinging about what powers it didn’t have, driven by the separatists and indulged by Labour.

A study into the educational performance of children in Scotland between 1999, when Holyrood first met, and 2010, found that despite a vast increase in spending on schools over that period, there had been little benefit to those from the poorest areas.

Take the tragedy of Glasgow, for example. In 1999, only 5 per cent of pupils from Govan High went on to higher education. In 2010, the figure was 5.1 per cent. At Drumchapel High, a pupil leaving the school was three times more likely to be unemployed than at university. Only 1 per cent of pupils at Drumchapel achieved five or more Highers (the Scottish equivalent of England’s A-levels) in S5 in 2009, compared with 39 per cent at nearby, middle-class Jordanhill. The same patterns were found in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

Despite the cheerful blatherings of a Nobel laureate, the reality ain’t great. A period of silence from Joe Stiglitz on Scotland would be most welcome. And let’s just hope the advice he gives those American presidents is a bit better informed.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.