It still amazes me how many people seem to regard higher education in the UK prior to Labours introduction of tuition fees as ‘free’. Of course there is no such thing as free higher education. University was no more free than the NHS, except while we can all use a service like the NHS, universities are for the select few.
Even after the introduction of tuition fees, university courses are heavily subsidised, which involves the government taking around £14 Billion from the general taxpayer (including those on low incomes) and giving it to students and universities. In short, to help fund higher education the government has ended up taxing the poor to help subsidise the rich getting richer. Is that fair?
Times are of course now much harder than they were when fees were introduced in 2003. A decade of mismanagement of the public finances has led to our record national debt. Our Universities are crying out for increases in funding to keep up with their international competitors; funding which is not there. As a result they are increasingly sidelining British students in favour of foreign students who can be charged unlimited fees. Is this fair?
Some at least accept that students will have to contribute more towards their education, with Labour supporting a ‘Graduate Tax’. This would involve graduates making an unlimited payment for the rest of their life based on their incomes not their course. The graduate tax however has many faults. Firstly, some graduates will end up paying many times more than the cost of their courses. Is that fair? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there could be no guarantee that this or any future government would use the money raised by such a tax to support universities; even if the government did ring fence the income for universities, it would take years to come through – and universities need money now to ensure they can maintain the high quality education they offer. It also poses difficult questions where for example a student attended two different institutions for their undergraduate and masters degrees; which university gets the money what share of the money? It would require a costly Whitehall bureaucracy to administer such a system.
Meanwhile the current ‘fees system’ already encompasses the best and fairest element of the graduate tax, notably that graduates (not students) contribute to the costs of higher education, and they only do so according to their ability to pay because payments are linked to earnings. Now that is fair. Of course, the immediate reaction from those opposing an increase in fees is that it would be make university less attractive to those less well off. While on the face of it this may seem to be common sense, the statistical evidence does not bear this out; students attending university from lower income backgrounds continued to increase after fees were introduced in 2003; might have something to do with the fact that the lowest earning families get grants and bursaries…
Since graduates benefit personally, I think it is only right that they should also make a direct contribution to the costs of study. Making students aware of the value of their degree also puts pressure on their universities to up their games. Increasing the cap on tuition fees is quite clearly the fairest way of achieving both value for money for students and taxpayers as well as delivering the upfront investment desperately required to keep UK universities world class.