Critics say the proposal is unaffordable. But this is really a debate about how we view educationby Abi Wilkinson / July 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
The truth is, I don’t actually care that much about tuition fees. It might seem odd to begin an article by declaring a lack of interest in its subject matter, but I feel like it’s necessary context for the argument I’m about to make.
There are definitely practical issues with the way higher education is funded. Most significantly, there is the danger that ever-rising fees may deter students from lower income backgrounds from applying. The reality, though, is that what we’ve currently got is basically a graduate tax. Nobody pays anything back until they’re earning at least £17,775 per year, and they’re only asked to contribute 9 per cent of their income beyond that. It’s a financial burden—but not one that can spiral out of control and become unmanageable in the way US student debts often can.
It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s not intolerably awful, and if I was asked to list my top ten policy priorities it wouldn’t even make the list. However, now that Labour’s manifesto promise of free higher education has attracted so much attention—both positive and negative—it seems worthwhile to address some of the criticisms of the proposal head on.
What the critics think
There are two, maybe three main forms of argument put forward by critics of Labour’s plan. The first, advanced mainly by people who consider themselves to be on the left, is that it’s a nice idea but simply unaffordable. They argue that with schools and early years budgets cut to the bone, the estimated £8 billion annual cost could be spent better elsewhere. Frequently, they also note that young people from privileged backgrounds are statistically more likely to attend university—and consequently contend that funding tuition out of general taxation would be “regressive”.
Other opponents contend that feasibility isn’t the point—fairness is the entire issue. They may or may not cite the demographic profile of students to bolster their core argument: that it’s unfair for people who haven’t attended university themselves to be asked to help shoulder the cost. This is the view of Michael Gove, who suggested on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday that “it’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”
These arguments are founded on certain, questionable, assumptions. Claims about unmanageable costs ignore the fact that it’s already left to the state to cover the cost of tuition upfront. Though the Student Loans Company is structured differently, tuition fee repayments work very similarly to a flat-rate, 9 per cent tax levied on graduates for 25 years after they begin earning enough to pay it. Funding higher education via general taxation simply broadens the base of people contributing. It’s not clear why spreading the burden more widely should make it less affordable—quite the opposite in fact.
Time to cough up, Gove
Which brings us onto the fairness issue. The most persuasive versions of this argument frame free higher education as a move that would leave struggling, low-income workers subsidising the already privileged middle classes. It’s true you theoretically could end up with such a situation, but it depends entirely how your tax system is structured. Labour has proposed tax rises only for the top 5 per cent of earners. As an alternative to an effective 9 per cent flat rate tax on any graduate earning above £17,775, this seems quite a progressive move. Factory and retail workers are not being made to contribute anything more. Footballers, property developers and other wealthy non-graduates are helping pay to train teachers, engineers and pharmacists.
The other elephant in the room is that many people advancing these “unfairness” arguments benefited from tax-funded higher education themselves. Michael Gove attended university in the late 1980s, when a far smaller proportion of the population had the opportunity to study. Vince Cable, who has made similar arguments, read economics at Cambridge in the 1960s—when graduates made up an even smaller elite. Many of the top 5 per cent of earners Labour wishes to tax at a higher rate will be people who benefited from university education when tuition was fully funded and generous maintenance grants were also provided. Gove himself argued on the Andrew Marr show that “if people who get university degrees go on to earn well … they should pay something back.” I’m inclined to agree.
A bigger debate about education
Ultimately, this is a debate about how we view education. If we think only in terms of personal career prospects and earning potential, then resentment at being asked to fund others’ advancement makes (some) sense. If we see having an educated population as socially beneficial—something that enables us to advance as a nation and makes life more pleasant for us all—it makes sense to fund it collectively from general taxation.
Few of us argue against schools or the NHS on the grounds that higher income families are able to access state-funded education and healthcare. We see the benefits of treating these things as universal rights, and in distributing the financial burden between all of us based on how able we are to pay. In a 21st century advanced economy, where an increasing proportion of jobs require a degree, it makes sense to me to treat higher education the same way.