Education, Education, Education: Aspiration Tax


Tuition fees do not help fund higher education – they are a punitive tax on aspiration.

It is a fundamental principle of socialism that education should be provided equally and freely to all. It is a fundamental principle of neoliberalism that aspiration should not be taxed. Yet the Labour governments of 1997-2010 broke both of these principles – the socialist one they claim as their heritage, and the neoliberal one which they adopted under Tony Blair in a bid for power.


Labour first introduced, and then trebled, tuition fees for University courses. Before 1998, British Citizens did not pay for higher education. It would be to go against both the post-war social democratic consensus and the post-Thatcherite neoliberal consensus for such a thing to happen. John Major first floated the idea of alternative sources of higher education funding, but it was implemented under the Blair/Brown New Labour project.

The Coalition government, rightly,  are linked, in the minds of the British people with tuition fees. The spectacular way in which the Liberal Democrat promise to scrap tuition fees entirely was broken is the stuff of political legend. What is even more worrying, though, is that the Conservative party want to remove the cap on fees altogether, leaving the UK higher education system completely open to market forces, in a way even the USA cannot match (not all American colleges are for-profit institutions). The fee level generally proposed by Vice-Chancellors as £16,000 a year.

As it stands, EU students are now saddled with a £9,000-a-year debt, before any living costs.

Students protest outside Parliament

It is pretty clear to see how tuition fees violate the principle of free and equal access to education – in short, it makes education no longer free and restricts access to it on the basis of wealth (or willingness to accrue large amounts of long-term debt). It is somewhat less straightforward to see how such a policy constitutes an aspiration tax, but all it requires is a moment’s consideration.

Education can be seen as a way of improving one’s chances in life: it is no secret that even fairly “mundane” jobs these days often require a degree. Possession of a higher education degree, then, can improve your quality of life quite considerably; it is, in short, a key to what is for many a lifestyle they aspire to. Simply put, someone with a degree earns on average 85% more than someone with only GCSEs, while someone with only A Levels earns just 15% more. A degree, in the brutal monetary terms, equals earning potential.

 The true cost of getting a degree is estimated around £100,000. Though loans are of course available, taking on that kind of debt is a terrifying prospect for many young people. It puts them off furthering their education, and application levels – despite having risen this year – are still below the level they were before the tuition fee hike. Consider that the economy has ‘recovered’ during that time, and population has grown by three-quarters of a million, and this is alarming.

 So, tuition fees are a method of imposing what is in essence a tax on the aspiration of young people to improve their lives. They discourage degrees which do not translate directly into a high-earning job. In order to pay off this huge debt, students are leaving behind courses in the arts and humanities in favour of the physical and social sciences. The true purpose of learning – the acquisition of knowledge – has been supplanted by bald monetary calculations.

 It should also be noted that tuition fees are not equal across the UK. For English citizens, they are capped at £9,000, for Scottish citiziens, they do not exist. For Welsh people grants exist to cover the first £5,315, and similarly for Northern Irish citizens, they are capped at £3,685.

EU students in Scotland and Wales receive the same tuition fees as Scottish and Welsh nationals; whilst English and Northern Irish students have to pay. This patchwork system of fees means that the English in particular are grossly discriminated against.

So, why would the establishment parties want to impose such an aspiration tax? It isn’t for the economic benefit to the country – it is estimated that the average student won’t actually pay back 43% of their loan – they’ll just be paying off the debt until their 50s, when it will be written off. The increase to £9,000 will actually end up losing the government money. Furthermore, Higher Education in total costs £27.9 billion a year; the UK spends £45.6 billion a year on defence.

 No, the real reason behind the aspiration tax is an attempt to prevent students from furthering themselves. It stands to reason: knowledge is power, and the ruling elite are quite fond of having all the power, thank you very much. A degree also translates directly into economic benefit, thanks to the neoliberal deregulation of the financial sector, there’s only so much money to go around. It is in the interests of those who have it to prevent others from acquiring it – hence the aspiration tax.

 Overall, tuition fees are a policy designed only to hurt students. The recent rise is going to end up actually costing the government £5 billion a year. Why not just scrap it? The Treasury saves money, students aren’t faced with mountains of debt and education might actually come to be seen as a priority again. 

This article is cross-posted with the author’s blog, Cynical Optimist


Discussion8 Comments

  1. avatar

    Hey, great article!! Just a couple of things though: Higher education is optional, and therefore it surely wouldn’t violate the principle of free and equal education?

    And, to play devil’s advocate, isn’t there a distinct possibility that if fees were scrapped, the concept of a degree (especially from the lesser universities) would be devalued, which would then lead to an aspiration for even further education, for another fee, in a similar way to how some mature students pay to do another degree to gain further qualifications?

    • avatar

      Your point is a valid one (although I dislike the idea of ‘lesser’ universities intently) but the fact is that to access most well-paid jobs in the modern market, a degree is necessary; a phD, however, is not. Yes, in a perfect world all education would be free, but I accept that practicalities mean a line has to be drawn somewhere. My point is that drawing it before degree level prevents access by many students to opportunities to better themselves economically, and thus contributes to increasing wealth and income inequality

  2. avatar

    ” No, the real reason behind the aspiration tax is an attempt to prevent students from furthering themselves. It stands to reason: knowledge is power, and the ruling elite are quite fond of having all the power, thank you very much”

    Dear goodness. What utter paranoid drivel.

    Occam’s razor: Funding for higher education was becoming unsustainable due to poor public finances and the rapid expansion of the number of people attending University (Labour government wanted 50% of the population going). If Labour really wanted to “prevent people from furthering themselves”, why did they first rapidly push for University expansion and then propose a graduate tax once it was clear it was becoming unsustainable? The fact the numbers still don’t add up despite the increased tuition fees is a reflection on how useless government is on costing policies and the fact the current policy is a mess of badly thought out compromises.

    I have a lot of time for discussion about tuition fees, they are indeed a tax on aspiration. But, be sensible – it’s not some form of conspiracy to keep the masses down. This discredits your argument. It’s just a reflection of our poor public finances and overall bad policy by Government.

    • avatar

      And why would it not be? It is undeniably in the interests of elites to keep the circle of people with access to high levels of money and power as small as possible. Are you suggesting that the neoliberal parties – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems – are altruistic in nature? I think that is a far harder intellectual position to justify

      • avatar

        Re your first part, no doubt some people probably do think like that. There is however not some active and shared overarching agenda between all parties to undermine the population. It’s total nonsense. Reads like something out of the Socialist Worker.

        The fact there’s never been more people going to University than there is now (in terms of generations), speaks volumes. Expansion which was started under the Tories e.g. John Major and polytechnics and then continued under Labour. This does cost money and needs to be funded.

        Other aspects of education policy also do not fit your narrative. For example, the current Government wants to increase educational standards, reforming public examinations and the curriculum. This has seen, among other achievements, more young people choosing “good” GCSEs following the introduction EBac which means a school receives a point in the league tables only when a child passes GCSEs in a modern language, science, language, etc. Previously, children, usually working class children were shoehorned into doing dodgy/worthless GCSEs like media studies, textile etc which are worthless in the real world. Subjects which a middle class child would be less likely to do and do not provide a basis for getting into a good Russell Group University and landing a good career.

        In conclusion, this conspiracy angle is total rubbish and actually distracts from the issue for which I do have time for.

  3. avatar

    In my opinion Government’s consider HE policy based upon
    a) How they can be seen to improving social mobility
    b) How it will play with middle class parents

    People in age range of 18-24 just don’t vote, so frankly why would the government give two hoots what we think.

    We can rabbit on about “the debt” but frankly it’s not a credit card debt. No money ever leaves my bank account to pay for my education until after I graduate, unbeleivably the government actually puts money into my bank account while i’m studying, some of which I never have to pay back.

    And as I aspire to greatness and earn the 6 figure salary I deserve I’ll be paying a defined tax for a short period of time, I benefit and I pay for it.

    The Rubbish collector on minimum wage is grateful that rather than all his taxes going on paying for middle class rich kids to go to Uni that some of that cost will actually be recouped by a higher tax on those graduates who benefit from HE the most.

    When we start voting we can start to complain.

    • avatar

      Aspire all you like – if a six figure salary is your main objective, greatness is well beyond your grasp. And what you say with regards to tax might make sense if the money taken away from higher education was spent on public services your hypothetical rubbish collector and his children might benefit from; instead, they are being spent on tax cuts for millionaires and for multinational corporations. As for voting, I do, so I will, thank you very much

      • avatar

        The money hasn’t been taken away from Higher Education, how do you think Universities are still operating and student numbers are higher than they were before the new fee regime was put in place?

        You aren’t paying anything! I know it is a hard concept to grasp but an invoice from the University of Southampton did not hit your doormat requesting tuition fee payments now did it?

        The government still gives Universities money for each student they recruit. They are able to do this in the current period of austerity and public spending cuts because they move the funding “off balance sheet” by accounting for a percentage of the money coming back through graduate contributions.

        Frankly the new fee regime saved Universities and has given you the opportunity to enter Higher Education.

        Still keep on voting free education for all and see how far that gets you…

        The evidence in there, the government could of cut pension provision in our hugely inflated Welfare Bill but chose not to touch it… why?… because Old people vote.

        You may vote congrats! But frankly people in our age group don’t and no amount student demonstrations and middle class, middle England hand ringing about “the spectre of fees” will change anything until politicians think they have something to lose by pandering to our agenda

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