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.
Image courtesy of Ivan Hernández on Flickr