On October 19th 2011 Professor James Tooley delivered the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) E.G. West Memorial Lecture at Church House, Westminster, London.  In his address, Professor Tooley challenges the accepted notions about profit in education – and states the case for a free, unrestricted market.  His lecture marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Professor E. G. West, whose Education and the State (originally published in 1965 by the  IEA) was regarded as the 20th century’s most influential work on the free market in education.

An interview with Prof James Tooley

What was it that spurred your interest in education policy?

As a young socialist, I went to teach in Zimbabwe, straight after its independence, straight after I graduated from Sussex University. Seeing a government like Mugabe’s in action made me start thinking about the role of government in our lives – although even that didn’t make me change my socialist ideas. I then returned to England in 1986 – to Thatcherite Britain, quite entranced by some of what I saw, a little bit seduced by some of the changes I saw in my own country, but not quite persuaded …. In 1988, the Thatcher government started in earnest its education reforms – designed, it was said, to bring “markets” into education. This must be wrong, I figured. I started my PhD to show why Thatcher’s reforms offended social justice and our worthy concerns.

One of the early books I read for my studies changed my whole life – it was E.G. West’s Education and the State. In it he argued for a minimal role for the state in education. My PhD became refocused on proving him wrong. Eventually my studies led me to the conclusion that he was right in all the essential details – there is very little justified role for government in education. He’s been an influence that has informed all of my life’s work.

How do you think the coalition government is doing in terms of education?

It’s doing okay. There are some exciting reforms, like the free schools/academies, and other reforms that don’t hit the headlines but which are nonetheless worthwhile, liberating private school markets a bit. But “okay” is all one can really hope for government reforms at this stage – in my paper I’ll be explaining why I believe this is the case. It’s to do with all the vested interests that support the government education near-monopoly, and which get to claim the moral high ground. Part of that moral high ground is in the opposition to the profit motive in education.

Why do you think there is such opposition to the profit motive in education?

State education has been very effective in one profound way – almost everyone is convinced that the state is necessary to promote educational opportunities, particularly for the poor. In fact so successful is this that few even feel this is a question worth raising. Of course, if the state is absolutely essential to promote educational opportunities, especially for the poor, then this has to be done in a way that avoids contamination from outside, from the market. Thus one strong objection to the profit motive – that it will distort and undermine the state aspiration to help the poor in education.

In my lecture I want to show that this is completely misguided. I’ll be showing this in terms of historical argument – it’s certainly not been true historically, not in England & Wales, not even in Scotland as some contend, that the state was required to educate the poor and that the profit motive was a bad thing. And I’ll be showing the same in contemporary evidence from developing countries and emerging economies – evidence from China, India and sub-Saharan Africa.

What do you think can be done to change that?

Those of us who don’t believe it to be valid have to keep on banging on about why we don’t believe it to be the case, and why we believe allowing the profit motive into education will allow investment and innovation to come into education, and quality to be enhanced. But smile while banging on about it. Better still, we need good evidence of this working. There’s some evidence around – some of which I’ll present in the lecture. But much more needs to be gathered. And we need entrepreneurs to take the plunge and create more and more for profit educational opportunities to add to our evidence bank.

What’s the one message you hope people will take away from your lecture?

Don’t take state intervention in education for granted. Don’t assume that the moral high ground rests with opponents to markets in education. I know, that’s two messages, but two different aspects of the same issue.