At first glance, £9,250 per year seems like an extortionate amount of money to be charging students many of whom will have earned very little to no money in their lifetimes. The average student in England has just over £40’000 of debt by the time they are required to start repaying it. Therefore it is no surprise that there is widespread public support for the abolition of tuition fees especially, unsurprisingly enough amongst young people. However, this view is a misguided one, accelerated by the populist left whose advocacy for such a policy harms the poorest in society they claim to represent.
Campaigners for abolition argue that higher education is a basic right that should be available to everyone no matter their socio-economic background and that tuition fees, therefore, disadvantage poorer students who do not have the means to pay the high prices. This is an economically imbecilic simplification of the tuition fees system in England. Firstly, student loans cover all tuition costs no matter what an undergraduate’s financial situation is. Secondly under the student loan system tuition fees are only paid back once one reaches an income of £25,725. 9% of every penny earned above this is then diverted to reducing a graduate’s student debt. Thirdly all student debt is written off after 30 years. Therefore, tuition fees function like a graduate tax, a student will pay back as much as their degree earns them.
University attendees have historically been a minority in England. In 2000 shortly after tuition fees were introduced 33% of young people obtained a university degree by 2018 that number had risen to just over 50%, for the first time ever university students were the majority. This expansion of higher education participation has been attributed to well-funded universities being able to offer more places, thanks to tuition fees. But imagine for a moment that the fees were abolished and that universities were funded through general taxation. Half the country, the lesser-educated, poorer half would be helping to pay for the education of the other half. Yes, they would be giving less than their counterparts but they are still paying for services they are unable to enjoy. Thus, such a system would be regressive.
The political parties in England seem to have evaded any ideological obligations to this policy in recent years. At the last General election, it was the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn who proposed complete abolition, yet the tuition fees system is simply another form of progressive taxation and thus any socialist ought to consider it a good policy and one that has opened higher education to ‘the many not the few’. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats, by uneasily supporting tuition fees have abandoned the principles of liberalism. For surely there is something inherently illiberal about indebting someone to the state for most of their working life. Though it was not always like this, since tuition fees were first introduced in 1998, each of the three main parties in England has at some point supported abolition.
The Corbynites who support the abolition cause irreparable harm by advocating this policy even when their wishes are not being granted. Young people have developed an irrational fear that they cannot afford to attend university because of the cost of tuition fees. They read the daunting words ‘£9,250 per year’, ‘forty grand of debt’ and whatever some high-profile member of the shadow cabinet has recently said, and it instils an unnecessary bias against higher education. Often, the young people in question are from poorer socio-economic backgrounds who are more cautious about the costs involved. This is only widening inequality, as academically and financially able teenagers are being dissuaded from getting a degree.
The student loan system in this country does have its flaws though and benefits those with the means to pay off their debt quickly. The debt amassed by students increases over time due to high-interest rates, however, if say the ‘bank of parents’ stepped in and repaid the loan soon after graduation, then these interest rates would be of little concern. Therefore, poorer students are spending more on their education than their upper-middle-class peers.
The solution has been laid out succinctly by Lord Blunkett who as education secretary introduced tuition fees. He argues that it ought not to be to reduce fees, as this would only benefit future higher earners who will have paid off the money in full by the end of the 30-year cut off period. Instead, Blunkett advocates reducing the astronomical interest rates so that more students can repay the loans in full and there is less disparity between those who are able and those who are unable to pay off the loan upfront.