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.
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