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There’s a progressive argument to be made for tuition fees – why won’t the government make it?

16 October 2017

6:04 PM

16 October 2017

6:04 PM

Ever since Labour won over young voters at the last election, the Conservatives have been trying to work out how to do the same. Tory MPs have scrambled around for ideas. Various suggestions have been mooted, ranging from a Tory Glastonbury and a Tory Momentum to lowering taxes for young voters, scrapping historic student debt and drastically reforming tuition fees.

With Jeremy Corbyn promising to abolish university fees, the debate surrounding higher education funding has become particularly toxic. Many younger voters feel that tuition fees are very unjust. What started as £1k a year has grown to £9,250 and the above-inflation interest rate only adds to the sense of unfairness.

It doesn’t help that few now bother to make the argument for tuition fees in response. It has become a struggle to find a Conservative politician willing to defend government policy. This was the case when Theresa May appeared on the Andrew Marr show earlier this month to announce a lacklustre ‘freeze’ on fees – and at the weekend, David Davis was reported to be urging the Treasury to scrap historic student debt in the budget.

On Thursday night, I took part in a debate at the Cambridge Union. The motion was ‘This House believes tuition fees should be abolished’. It was notable that not one Tory MP wanted to join the Opposition and make the argument that students ought to pay for their education. On the Proposition, there were two Labour grandees – Lord Adonis and Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner.

I was on the Opposition and, prior to the event, my friends suggested that my night would be better spent scratching nails on a chalkboard rather than telling a bunch of students not to rid themselves of debt. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that not only did my side manage to survive the experience unscathed, we also won the debate – with a 9.5pc swing to the opposition. The majority of students had gone into the room in favour of abolishing the fees but on hearing the arguments on both sides, they voted against scrapping fees.


Since then, I’ve had a number of people who weren’t there contact me on social media to explain why the students voted as they did. The recurring theme seems to be that these privileged kids are part of the elite, so they are happy to pull up the ladder so more disadvantaged children don’t have the same chance as them.

But this lazy assumption does everyone who was there a disservice. Students who back keeping tuition fees ought to be credited for putting national interest ahead of self interest. On the surface, a Cambridge graduate – tipped to earn one million pounds more over a lifetime than someone with no qualifications – has far more to gain from scrapping a £9,250 bill than keeping it. Rather than personal gain, the vast majority that voted against the motion did so because of the progressive arguments for paying something towards your education. As Labour’s Phil Wilson put it, abolishing tuition fees is ‘a middle-class offer to young people on the whole from middle-class backgrounds’.

The price of scrapping tuition fees is estimated to be £11 billion (and wiping off student debt would cost £60bn). So the question to ask is whether this is the best use of that money. The Liberal Democrats – once the party of scrapping tuition fees – say they ‘don’t think that is affordable’ and conclude that restoring maintenance grants is the priority as it would help the ‘most disadvantaged students’. Meanwhile, the Sutton Trust say that it’s high quality early years provision which makes the biggest impact of all.

The claim that tuition fees should be axed because they put off students from disadvantaged backgrounds just doesn’t add up. The number of young people from poorer backgrounds now going to university in England is at a record level – up 43pc since 2009. Meanwhile, in Scotland where tuition fees were abolished in 2007, student numbers have been capped as a result and the poorest have suffered. University education is free but student numbers are effectively rationed so university access has narrowed rather than widened.

The argument about responsibility is also compelling. I attended a Scottish comprehensive and chose to study in England even though I would have to pay tuition fees. But I now have a job I enjoy, which pays above the average national salary, so it seems fair that I should have to pay a portion of my income for the qualification which helped me get here. The average university degree boosts lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000, so isn’t it right that students pay something towards the qualification that allows for this?

At the moment, students pay on average roughly 65 per cent of the cost of a degree through fees, while the taxpayer shoulders around 35 per cent, through teaching grants and loan subsidies. To shift the burden away from students, either the taxpayer needs to pay more or the government needs to increase borrowing. But why should those who didn’t attend university be expected to subsidise the education of students who do, especially when it will most likely allow graduates to earn a higher salary?

Tuition fees have an image problem. Few students look forward to leaving university with average debts of £50,800. But the problem with looking at the loan in this way is that it isn’t a personal loan in the conventional sense. It could more accurately be called the ‘student fees contribution system’. A student loan is unlike any other personal debt. It works more like a graduate tax than a normal loan. You only pay it back when – and if – you earn a certain amount – usually when your degree has paid off and led to suitable employment. How much you pay back depends on how much you earn. If you fall out of work or even decide to bow out of the daily grind and go travelling for a year, your repayments stop until you are back in gainful employment. No-one is going to repossess your house if circumstances change. What’s more, if you still haven’t paid it off within 30 years, the outstanding amount disappears. As I said on Thursday, if all my loans were like this, things would be looking up.

The complexity of the current system means opponents of fees often get away with making misleading claims about how the debt works. The government is right to review the policy to see how it could be improved – and rebranded. But any changes in the scheme should be accompanied by a defence of fees in the first place. There are plenty of progressive arguments in favour of tuition fees. It’s about time the government started making them.

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