There are fewer more emotive issues for many students than tuition fees. The common refrain is that students are being priced out of university, dumped with ever-higher levels of debt and facing an extremely challenging jobs market after graduating. The reality, however, is not so.
The concept of a ‘free education’ is misguided: it is not free — it has to be paid for somehow. Graduates still enjoy a large advantage in the job market over non-graduates. Is it not fair then to ask those who benefit to contribute towards their degree?
Recent job market analysis suggests that over their lifetimes graduates on average earn £500,000 more than those who didn’t attend university. If tuition fees were funded wholly out of general taxation, those without the benefit of higher education would be subsidising those who did attend. Moreover, for many degrees the amount paid in fees pales in comparison to the actual cost of teaching the course; it costs up to £610,000 to train a doctor, whose tuition fees will amount to just £45,000 (less than 8% of the cost). This leads to the second myth: that higher tuition fees are pricing young people out of university.
“If it means universities are more competitive, rewarded for higher standards and accessible to students of all backgrounds, should there be any upper limits on fees at all?”
No one has to turn up at university with a £9,000 cheque. Essentially, graduates pay a slightly higher amount of tax. For example, someone earning £25,000 a year repays just £6.92 per week. If your income drops below £21,000 you have to repay nothing, and the debt is written off after thirty years. It is hard to argue that this is either a burden or a disincentive to go to university. This corresponds with data showing that record numbers of teenagers are applying to and studying at university.
Even more importantly, according to UCAS, the proportion of those from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is at a record level, and the gap between rich and poor is narrowing. The coalition’s reforms included an obligation for institutions to spend more helping poorer students. English universities now spend over a third of a billion pounds aiding disadvantaged students. In Scotland, the figure is just ten million pounds. And, as a worrying addition, a far lower proportion of poorer students get into university in tuition fee-free Scotland.
“Education is never free. It has to be paid for somehow”
The government has recently produced a green paper on higher education reform. The essential part of this is a stress on standards. This means more competition. It also means that universities will be able to increase their fees in line with inflation if they meet new high standards. As outlined above, it is nonsense to suggest that this will discourage prospective students. What it will do is force universities to make sure their graduates are well prepared for the job market and to stop offering low quality degrees. I propose we go one step further, and give universities the responsibility for collecting student debt, giving them even more incentive to produce highly productive and skilled graduates.
This is a far more effective way to ensure we have world-leading universities and a highly skilled workforce than abolishing fees would be. Abolition is akin to the state rationing the availability of higher education, rather than letting supply meet demand. Evidence from Ireland and Scotland shows that scrapping fees simply amounts to a subsidy for the middle classes, does not raise standards, does not help poorer people and does not boost applicant numbers.
Of course there are other financial worries for students, principally living costs, but this is a separate issue from tuition fees. Universities are attracting record numbers of students and social mobility is better than ever. It begs the question, should there be any upper limit on fees at all? If universities are more competitive, rewarded for higher standards and accessible to the brightest students regardless of background, logic and empirical evidence would suggest there should not be.
Where would we be, as a society and as a nation, without higher education? If it didn’t exist or was only available to the country’s elite as it was for eight centuries, we would have nothing. Research represents the preliminary stage of any technological or social advancement. Universities are what drives us forward. How then, if higher education is such a crucial part of any country, can the government think that funding it is not their responsibility?
The idea that graduates should contribute towards the funding of higher education that they profited from is not unfair. However, to saddle them with tens of thousands of pounds of debt for an (often) three year course is entirely unjust. Many students don’t believe that what they gain from their course is in fact worth being burdened with more than £36,000 of debt for the next few decades.
Jo Johnson, the current Minister of State for Universities and Science, says he wants to make sure that students feel their degrees are worth the money. To do this, plans have been proposed to allow certain institutions to charge more than the yearly £9,000, assuming more money magically equates to better quality. If anything, since students feel their course is not worth the current fees, charging even more is just going to exacerbate their dissatisfaction.
“Charging even more is just going to exacerbate student dissatisfaction”
After the tripling of tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 in 2012, the government itself estimated that around 45% of graduates will never be able to pay off their debt entirely, and that if that figure should rise by even a smidgen, the government will be losing more money than it is making through this system. Surely then, allowing ‘better’ universities to charge more is going to mean that the government lose out even more, since the loans are (indirectly, through the student loans companies) government funded.
An unavoidable by-product of this proposition is that it will also create a two-tier system within universities, whereby the ones deemed not ‘good enough’ to raise their fees above the current cap could end up being considered second-rate institutions. This will only serve to perpetuate the elitism presented by the existence of certain interest groups such as the Russell Group.
“If higher education is such a crucial part of any country, how can the government think that funding it is not their responsibility?”
Many people might defend the current state of tuition fees because repayments aren’t too high, and we’re protected in that it will eventually be cancelled if we can’t manage to pay it all back. But who’s to say that they won’t sell off student debt as they already discussed in the last government? Who’s to say that private companies won’t hike the rate of repayment? We’ve seen over the past five years, and especially over the past six months, how we cannot underestimate the extent to which the Tory cabinet will go, as insane and irrational their moves might be.
Education whether it be at primary school or at university is not a commodity but a universal right. Charging incredibly high fees for university education does drive some people away – people whose intelligence and contributions could be priceless to academia – because let’s face it, the prospect of being weighed down for many years with debt to pay off isn’t too palatable for the majority of us. It has to be realised and accepted that providing higher education with the funding to fulfil its role of teaching, researching and contributing to society is in the interests of everyone. It’s in the interests of the student, of the universities, of the government and of the entire country. Funding for higher education should be treated as a priority by the state, not forced upon the people who keep it alive.