This article was first published on 1828.
According to a recent report from the OECD, England’s higher education fees are the second most expensive in the developed world, beaten only by our cousins in the USA. Thanks to the overwhelming reductionism of the contemporary socialist’s economic worldview, Newton’s third law dictates that the British left must call loudly and frequently for the slashing, or even scrapping, of tuition fees.
The fallacious implication of this position is that higher fees make university more expensive for students, and that cutting those fees would therefore improve accessibility.
As fees climb, the final figure presented to students upon graduation as their “debt” becomes very large. And as such, more and more people are taken in by this convenient myth.
Besides anything else, on a fundamental level, high tuition fees allow for well-funded universities, which is a necessary precondition if ours are to remain world leaders.
As well as providing premium services which allow our graduates to become some of the most qualified and successful people in the world, British universities are supremely generous, offering a myriad of bursaries and scholarships which, from personal experience, enhance and enrich poorer students’ time at university beyond measure.
Unsurprisingly, whisking vast sums of money away from the higher education sector would profoundly undermine universities’ ability to do these things.
Of course, if swathes of our graduates were being financially maimed by overwhelming debts, that would be a cause for great concern however excellent those universities may be.
But if we were truly in the midst of a pandemic in which entire cohorts of people in their twenties suddenly found themselves crushed under the weight of tens of thousands of pounds of debt, our economy would have stalled long ago.
It is concerning in the extreme that the left continues to peddle such an openly disingenuous position.
Then again, the bar is low. The shadow chancellor, for instance, insists that the nationalisation of various industries would be completely free: “When we purchase something, that comes onto our books. It’s neutral. That becomes an asset that we own,” he says, straight-faced, going on to lampoon Andrew Marr for “working on the basis that there is a cost”.
Whatever Labour might say, graduates are not in debt. Student loan repayments are structured as a progressive tax contribution, generously tailored to the needs of the individual.
Neoliberalism goes hand in hand with social mobility, so liberty lovers should have no issue with supporting the current fee model.
Currently, the salary threshold at which repayment begins is very high, sitting at £25,725. That figure will increase in April 2020, as it does annually, rising by £850.
Those who struggle to get by on their earnings are under no obligation to pay for their education, unless their financial situation improves significantly. For perspective, you start paying income tax at just £12,500.
Students do not, on the whole, pay £9,250 per year for their higher education, even though that is the advertised fee of the vast majority of higher education courses in the UK. Only the richest graduates may eventually end up repaying their loans in full. The rest of us do not pay back a penny until we’re financially secure and, even then, the repayments are extremely modest.
Even once your salary passes the high and ever-growing threshold, the proportion of your income which is ringfenced for paying for your higher education is exceedingly small, to the point of being negligible.
This is because just nine per cent of what you earn above the threshold is paid back. A graduate earning £1 above the threshold would be liable to repay nine pence each year. A graduate earning £30,000 would repay just £385 per year.
The repayment model is extremely considerate of the individual’s circumstances. If your earnings drop, your contributions will fall accordingly.
If some of the loan remains unpaid after thirty years, which is the case most of the time, your obligations are wiped, and the government foots the bill (in addition to immense quantities of direct state funding to universities, accounting for over a quarter of their income).
There is no sense in which the student loan repayment structure could hamstring graduates or bring about financial hardship of any kind. The bandying about of galactic figures in discussions of higher education policy betrays the fact that the vast majority of the cost of higher education is covered by the state.
Government estimates predict that fewer than one in three current undergraduates will pay back their loans in full – it will, of course, be the richest third who shoulder that burden.
Why, then, is the prevailing narrative one of crippling debt and an austere state refusing to fork out for its young people’s university education? Why is student finance talked of in a manner that is so far detached from the truth? The problem here is a political one. Other more nuanced approaches than simply slashing the headline fees figure are considerably more efficient, but much less sexy.
Abolishing maintenance loans and replacing them with the return of maintenance grants is an alternative solution. This way, the government would be investing in higher education in a way that does not funnel the new cash directly into the pockets of the richest graduates.
The benefits of this policy would be minute in relation to the funds that would be required to implement it. The government would be getting appalling value for money on its investments because the billions of pounds that would be required would simply reduce graduates’ average “debt” from around £50,000 to roughly £30,000.
The crux remains constant: this saving would primarily benefit those who pay off their loan quickest – that is, the richest graduates. The same is true of cutting interest rates.
Because of the acres of leeway offered by the repayment model, the material benefit felt by graduates of slicing off a small portion of the overall figure would be trivial.
In an ideal world, the government should seek to remove the cap on fees altogether, or at least raise it enough such that universities have enough wiggle room to compete properly among themselves. This would allow students to seek out a more tailored higher education career than is currently possible, offering a great deal more choice to prospective undergraduates.
Oxbridge would likely be unseated from its centuries-long reign at the top of our league tables as competition in the industry exploded, allowing British universities to reverse the slow but disquieting trend of their slipping down international league tables.
Crucially, raising or lifting the cap on fees would not increase graduates’ financial obligations. They would still only pay back that very slim portion of their income each year, and the books would still be cleared after thirty years. There would be no extra financial strain placed on students, but our universities would, at long last, find themselves free to carve out their own identity and test the limits of their potential.
Such a move appears out of reach for the foreseeable future because, despite its various benefits and economic harmlessness, it would be intensely vulnerable to caricature from the left as a policy that makes university education more costly for the poorest students, thanks to the alarming and misleading headline figures that it would inevitably produce.
This is not to say that the government shouldn’t seek to invest in or reform higher education. Trying to redistribute funds directly to students, though, is an ineffective way of going about it.
Thanks to the under-appreciated benefits of the current system, students are already in the best position that could reasonably be expected.
If polling indicates that the Department for Education is an electorally helpful place to focus and there happen to be a couple of billion pounds lying around in a Whitehall biscuit tin, the government would do well to consider investing in the research institutes housed within universities in order to make Britain the undisputed home of cutting-edge research.
This is an area in which increased state funding would be gratefully received and put to phenomenal use. Britain is at the forefront of pioneering research efforts, but, if handled poorly, the aftermath of Brexit could pose a threat to our institutions’ relationships with other research hubs and networks around the world.
Britain is in a strong position to propel itself to the front line of booming research areas like AI and make itself a leading light in the great innovative strides of the coming decades. But this misleading and regressive talk of the apparent need to cut tuition fees is distracting from it, to our own substantial detriment.