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…