Intervention – Mad World? On the Social Construction of Economic Value

Brett Christophersby Brett Christophers, Uppsala University

The past two weeks have witnessed an extraordinary public and political outcry about levels of remuneration in the UK’s teaching sector. While there have been rumblings of discontent for several years, things have been brought to a head by this year’s unprecedented bonus season, which saw thousands of teachers being awarded six-figure sums and “several hundred” – according to informed industry sources – receiving seven-figure packages.

“It’s extremely hard to see any logical justification for such largesse”, said a spokesperson for the opposition Labour party. “These sums are entirely out of synch with the economic value actually generated in the educational sector”. Other critics pointed to research suggesting that a lack of competitiveness is responsible for the historically high levels of profitability in the industry, which in the postwar era has operated entirely within the private sector. “They’re just extracting rents, pure and simple”, one said, asking for his identity not to be revealed, but referring to peer-reviewed research in a respected academic sociology journal.

A key concern among such critics appears to be with a perceived misalignment of teaching objectives. “Look, the reality is that if you tie bonuses to short-term metrics like student grades, you encourage teachers to focus entirely on examination outcomes, which are surely just one part of the educational ambit”, observed the chairman of Britain’s leading public-sector trade union. “What about the longer-term development of young people as responsible, socially-minded citizens? Do we not care about such things? Can we not try to regulate the sector – and its remuneration practices – in such a way that a broader set of objectives can be encouraged?”.

Challenged to identify a better way of structuring educational provision, the union leader was unashamedly radical. “Why not make education a public utility funded through taxation? It’s not that outlandish an idea. Why do we simply assume that teaching belongs in the private sector?”.

To underline their case about the perceived “overvaluation” of teachers, the same critics frequently highlight what they regard as a particularly poignant counterexample: that of bankers, and what they see as the latter’s grotesque undervaluation. “At the same time as we have teachers walking home with obscene pay packets, we have bankers slaving away in incredibly challenging working conditions, and for fractions of the amount of money”, remarked Labour’s spokesperson. “These men and women provide a vital public service, and I’m afraid that it’s gotten to the point that we simply take it for granted. The national banking service is one of Britain’s great postwar achievements, and those working in it should be respected and valued accordingly”.

The head of the National Union of Bankers takes up the same argument. “It’s not our fault that society has decided that our service is a public good, is it? I can assure you that we – our workers, our institutions – would and could make huge profits, too, if we were privatized. But the point is, we don’t want that. We believe in the public service we provide, it’s our ‘mission’, if you like, and we don’t think the ordinary man on the street should have to pay for it; but should our workers be punished for this in the form of derisory levels of pay?”.

When we put it to her that the current state of affairs risked alienating a future generation of potential bankers, the union’s chief executive concurred. “Oh, absolutely, yes. The government needs to be very careful here. If banking continues to be undervalued, people just won’t want to do it any more, however personally ‘rewarding’ they might think the work is. Remember that we’re talking about a world in which young people find it harder and harder to buy their own home. Graduates are inevitably going to gravitate towards where they think the easy money is, areas like teaching, where every Tom, Dick, and Harry currently seems to be taking home astronomical sums”.

Certainly recent revelations from those who have worked in both worlds seem to support this case. We spoke to Jason, who worked in the school sector for ten years, retired early having made his millions, and then followed his principles and returned to work as a banker after three years of extra training. Jason’s story was recently serialized in another newspaper, and it makes for provocative reading. “What type of society do we live in…”, his forthcoming book asks, “…when I now work twice as hard as I ever did as a teacher, and arguably perform an equally if not more important public service, but where I get paid less than a tenth as much?”.

The Conservative government, meanwhile, rebuts these criticisms with its own forthright logic. “Now, when the public finances have been left in disarray by the previous administration, is really not the time for bankers to be complaining about their lot”, said the Prime Minister. “We all have to pull together – politicians as much as bankers, let me add – and put the public finances back in order. This means tightening our belts and not simply expecting the taxpayer to generously fund us come what may. These are tough times. All of us in the public sector need to learn to be leaner, more efficient, and that must include bankers I’m afraid. We need to strip out needless middle-management and stifling bureaucracy”.

The Chancellor added his influential voice to the Prime Minister’s: “Let me be clear about this. We see the banking service as a public good and bankers as public servants. It would therefore be entirely inappropriate to introduce markets to the banking sector and to let the profit motive, so to speak, reign”. Does this mean that all private-sector methods will and should be resisted? “No, not at all. We are clearly not averse to introducing relevant private-sector efficiencies to public banking. Banking will remain public, to be sure, but it has much to learn from the private sector. Of course it does. In fact I personally would point here to the much – and in my view, entirely unfairly – maligned teaching sector. Just look at the incredible efficiencies in evidence there”.

Unsurprisingly the British Teachers’ Association – the principal trade association and lobbying body for the schooling industry – comes at these issues from a similar standpoint as the government. “It’s incredibly frustrating and unhelpful that the public and the political opposition do not seem to recognize the contributions our members make to the British economy”, says the BTA’s chairman. “Who do Labour think pays the taxes that keep the country afloat? Let me tell you: our members do. The taxes our members paid on their profits (in the case of the schools) and salaries (in the case of the teachers) last year could have paid for the equivalent of 15 new hospitals or 60 new bank branches. With all due respect to the banks, should they not be learning from our members’ entrepreneurial spirit rather than complaining about the remuneration that flows from this entrepreneurship? Our member schools employ 3,500,000 British people; they contribute 12 percent of national gross value-added; and last year they provided 20 percent of the Revenue’s tax income”.

The chief executive of Britain’s top-ranked school was equally stout in his defense of the sector. “It’s all very easy and populist to criticize my staff’s compensation levels, but it’s also facile. Our profit reflects our productivity levels. Workers at this school are among the most productive workers in the world. We don’t decide how much we earn; the market does. We earn a lot of money because the market recognizes the utility our services afford. It’s not rocket science. If anything there are lessons for the public sector here. I just don’t think critics recognize the inherent difficulty and complexity of what we do. It’s tough work; real talent is required. At the end of the day, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.

With neither side giving an inch to the other, this debate seems set to run and run.