The issue of tuition fees is a controversial topic that is dominating current politics. Labour’s promise to abolish fees has rallied much of the typically apathetic youth around Jeremy Corbyn, whereas current government policy receives great criticism within the student community.

Corbyn’s stance on tuition fees in part explains the success of the Labour Party at the recent election, given that increased youth turnout may have tipped the balance in many marginal seats. I think it is important to emphasise how regressive and nonsensical abolishing tuition fees would be. The sheer cost of the government funding higher education is incompatible with achieving economic success and a fair society.

It is genius on Corbyn’s part that he has been able to rally so much support on attractive policies such as the abolition of fees without having any obligation to implement them. Yet, with Corbyn closer to Number 10 than anyone imagined, it is important to highlight the grave consequences of his policy.

“It does not matter whether a student has a debt of £10 000 or £1 million”

As well as the abolition of maintenance grants, the cap on fees has now risen to £9250. The erosion of this benefit contributes to a growing perception of an increasing burden, which understandably provokes resistance from students.

The interest on student debt is set at the Retail Price Index’s measure of inflation, currently 3.1%, + 3%. This appears absurd at a time when interest rates are at a historic low of 0.25%. However, there is a logic behind this. The higher rate of interest on student loans was simply an attempt to achieve higher repayments on an assumption that the total loan would never be repaid. This raises more money for the Treasury despite a lesser portion of the total debt being paid off.

There is a common misconception that a large student debt makes it near impossible to make a good start in life. Yet, it does not matter whether a student has a debt of £10 000 or £1 million. This is because a student pays back 9% of their annual income only if they earn above £21 000, regardless of their total debt. Since all debt is wiped out after 30 years, repayments depend on how well-paid graduates are in their future careers. This demonstrates George Osborne’s ‘graduate tax’ – higher earners contribute more.

Labour’s promise to abolish fees sounds fair and progressive, but in practice it is the just-about-managing families that would foot the bill for this policy. Ordinary working-class people would face an increased tax burden so that students who predominately come from the middle classes could get free higher education and benefit themselves. This is unjustifiable. If funding instead comes from increased borrowing, it is the poorer people of future generations that will suffer for our overindulgence.

“The poorest of society benefit from the current student loan system”

That Corbyn would sanction such a policy that redistributes wealth from the poor to the rich seems irrational, and demonstrates the rigidity of his ideological principles. Indeed, the poorest of society benefit from the current student loan system, gaining more funding than those from richer backgrounds. Naturally, a degree should be an option open to all – and numbers of students from poorer backgrounds have been rising year upon year under the current system.

No better is the absurdity of free tuition exemplified than in Scotland. Indeed, north of the border fees are not charged to ‘Young Students’. However, the Scottish budget deficit of 8.3% of GDP is more than three times that of the UK. The nationalist government’s overspending is unsustainable and it is ironic that they rely upon the Union they disdain to fund their policies.

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy report, published in 2016, revealed that literacy and numeracy rates for Scottish children had declined under the SNP government. By offering free tuition, the Scottish government has denied extra funding to struggling schools and has instead provided a tax break for middle class Scots attending university. It is vital that both primary and secondary education be properly funded. Failure to ensure this prevents those from poorer backgrounds having the opportunity to go to university.

That the devolved governments of the United Kingdom all set their own individual policy on student finance is also a problem. Different rules for different parts of the country serves to make the system imbalanced and unfair with English students comparatively penalised. A single nationwide policy would ensure equality of opportunity.

Scrapping fees altogether creates more problems than it solves

I am not arguing that the system is perfect. Do Universities make appropriate use of the £9000, soon-to-be £9250 per student? Can that amount be justified? Certain degrees such as Engineering have more contact hours and active teaching than courses such as History, raising the issue of value for money. Indeed, full fees are frequently charged for second rate courses at lower standard universities. Moreover, it often seems as though universities spend their money on vanity projects, such as eco-friendly buildings, instead of attempting to improve the quality of teaching. The ridiculously inflated pay for university Vice-Chancellors also serves to build up resentment against the current system.

The solutions to these problems are complex. Perhaps fees should be reduced to a more reasonable level of £6000; at least then a greater percentage of the loans would be repaid. Maybe university budgets should be reviewed to ensure money is used appropriately. Regardless, the message should be to keep reforming and trying to improve the system we have. Scrapping fees altogether creates more problems than it solves.

At a time of economic uncertainty, it seems ridiculous that free tuition would be a priority for an incoming Labour government. There are legitimate critiques to be made of Theresa May’s Conservatives. May’s obsession with extending grammar schools (a policy dropped since the election) is hardly a valid priority in these times. However, the Conservatives can claim to have had a valid and economically sound plan for government, albeit not an inspiring or generous one. And when reducing public expenditure is necessary, it is only fair that those individuals who benefit from the system should have to contribute to sustaining it.

Ollie Knott

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Image courtesy of Ivan Hernández on Flickr

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5 Comments

  1. Steve
    September 9, 2017 at 16:39 — Reply

    I realise this is likely to sound inflammatory – I do actually agree with paying a tuition fee in principle (one shouldn’t get something for nothing and a degree is an investment such as learning to drive etc.); however, the current system is highly flawed – that a blanket rate of £9,(250) is accepted for all courses regardless of contact time, resources etc. is simply unacceptable, something you’ve raised briefly to be fair, but that a person doing a humanities degree, who has low contact hours, and whose only resources are the academics, library and journal access is to pay the same for an often less well respected (I am humanities student don’t shoot me but we’re not STEM… i.e. the current focus) degree, as say a chemist or an engineer who is likely to do a combined masters in a valued area, who has high contact time, and whose required resources are lab equipment, and various other specialist items, as well as academics, libraries and journals is absolutely nuts!! Equally perhaps it should be proportionate to projected average career earnings for those graduates – a STEM graduate may often be seen to have much higher earnings than a the projected career path of theologian or historian who, if they are to stay within their subject, are often limited to curation, archiving or even teaching which have decent to good salaries but nowhere near as high as say a medical professional etc. It is simply unsustainable that the BA student is to pay £30k yet pay back much less than the BSc student who pays the same but earns more – especially as it is unlikely either will ever pay back in full…
    A second point I wish to raise is your strict idea that it is the working class who would foot the bill for the middle class gaining a free education. This is precisely Tory thinking, and something that a principled leader such as Corbyn would aim to avoid – I think it seems more likely everyone would foot the bill, especially considering his proposed tax raise for those earning above £80k/a. More importantly alongside his other proposed economic ideas was the £10/hour minimum wage – this is a 28% increase on the current minimum wage for over 25s so assuming that his tax increase to pay for all of this was lower than 28% plus inflation there would still be a positive increase in the income for those who are paid the least. Whilst it seems difficult to work out how both of these could occur without crippling the country, it seems that everyone would do their bit, and surely free access to degree level education for all is likely over time to actually boost the economy and the nation and become sustainable; the more social mobility is encouraged the better and a generally wealthier society is likely to spend more and so on… Equally a better educated society is required if we are to hold any government properly to account and call them out on their crap.

  2. Oliver
    September 26, 2017 at 13:51 — Reply

    Hey Steve, I wrote this article. I appreciate your argument and am thankful for your comment. Indeed, I am a History student myself and fully understand the focus towards STEM subjects and the lack of value for money and direct career opportunities in many cases. In this article I was limited to 1,000 words and thus was only briefly able to mention this issue as well as other important aspects of this debate (it is something I would be interested in discussing in a further article). This article instead focused on setting out the principle that we should pay fees, which it seems that you do agree with.
    As to the second point, it is true of course that everyone would contribute to funding universities through tax, etc. However, I think it is wrong in principle that poorer people should have to pay taxes for those richer bettering themselves. The benefits of the tuition fees system is that it transfers responsibility from the state to the individual, it provides people from whatever background with the opportunity to go to university. Thus, it is a person’s prerogative whether they choose to go to university or not. Instead, many other options are available such as apprenticeships that would drive the skills base we need in post-Brexit Britain. I fully agree that education is crucial to a successful Britain. However, to increase social mobility, the government needs to invest in primary and secondary education the most, especially in those more deprived areas. University education is simply not the best area money could be spent, especially in times of economic uncertainty. The IFS stated that it would cost £20 billion to write off student debt accumulated by the Tories by 2050. That’s a huge sum, and John McDonnell wants to do that and much much more. The basic point is that we currently spend £46 billion per year on debt interest. Imagine what it would be in ten, fifty, a hundred years if Corbyn gets into power and implements his policies. The decisions we make now economically are going to dramatically affect future generations. It is undeniable that in the future poor people will have to pay tax to fund interest payments to those wealthy enough to own government bonds. I am not arguing against public spending, I am simply arguing that the money should be used wisely. Primary and secondary education are the vital issue.

  3. Lewis wilson
    September 26, 2017 at 19:55 — Reply

    Dog off mate once Corbyn has his revolution university will be free for all

  4. Nathan
    September 27, 2017 at 09:34 — Reply

    Fantastic article, I wish more students would realise this!!

  5. Johnny Hill
    September 27, 2017 at 12:52 — Reply

    I personally believe that uni should be reserved for the most elite in society, all this equality rubbish is really starting to grind my gears, mardy students trying to get owt for nowt

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