There is no more obvious hot-button issue for UK students at the moment than tuition fees. Their trebling in the past few years was met with a wave of student anger, and Labour’s position at the last election – abolishing fees, though not cancelling past debt – doubtless helped them curry favour with students (though it would be ridiculous to assert this was the sole reason for their electoral success among younger demographics). It’s obvious why students might oppose fees – they’re the ones who end up saddled with debt. However, there are many strong moral and economic arguments against them: reasons to oppose tuition fees on the grounds of principle rather than self-interest.
The most obvious thing to point out is that you, me, and pretty much any other reasonable person already agree that education should be free, but for some reason we exclude higher education from this. As a society, we decided it was better to have a literate population that an illiterate one, and primary education became free and mandatory. We then decided an educated population would be preferable to an uneducated one, and so secondary education became free and mandatory, and the age at which we are expected to remain in education has increased in proportion to economic advancement. However, we’ve seen the opposite trend in higher education. Both for individuals and for wider society, this could be extremely damaging; some form of higher education (though not necessarily formal university education) is steadily becoming increasingly necessary for citizens to compete in an advanced economy.
The facile argument that it’s somehow fair to charge students high fees because they have a higher earning potential can be dispensed with on individualistic grounds – students end up paying for their education twice, once through fees and again through general taxation (fees don’t cover everything, and a lot of student debt gets written off). The minimum threshold to pay back tuition fees is £21,000, by no means a high salary, so it’s difficult to argue that if you don’t reap the financial fruits of your education you’ll avoid debt – to do so you’d have to live on a wage no graduate would consider sufficient, for 35 years.
However, the earning potential argument is flawed in its premise, since it implies that education has no value to anyone other than the degree holder (note the aforementioned emphasis on ‘citizens’ not ‘graduates’). Everyone benefits from having an educated population. You wouldn’t expect firefighters to pay for their training, why expect medics and engineers to do so? Though the benefit of other degrees may be less obvious, it’s still tangible, and thus it would be fairer to fund education as we do almost everything else: through progressive taxation.
The common argument against this is the “why should people who aren’t using it pay for it?” trope, but ask yourself – why fund roads if you don’t drive a car? Why fund hospitals if you’re young and healthy? Because someday, you might need to use those services, and even if you don’t, you benefit from living in a society that has them. If that leap can be made for infrastructure and healthcare, it should be easily enough made for education (perhaps even leading us to a National Education Service). Where do you think the people required for the former are trained, anyway?
The reticence to fund education through taxation rather than fees rests in the commonly held sentiment that the former is somehow more punitive than the latter, but in fact the reverse is true, since over the former democracy has some sway, and the public interest, rather than individual interest, can be considered.
Saddling a generation of students with debt as we do now makes little economic sense. In an era where consumer spending could be encouraged to stimulate economic growth, we’ve instead seen policies deliberately crafted to increase debt on students, with ever increasing fees and the abolition of grants. Sources – by no means left-wing, including Business Insider and The Market Mogul – express consternation at the “fiscal time bomb” precipitated by rising debt. The latter source indicates that, since three quarters of students will never pay off their debt in full, any proposed savings to public spending from trebling fees are close to being nullified, underscoring the ridiculousness of our current high fees.
The arguments made thus far have rested on pragmatism, but other points are relevant. For one thing, tuition fees weren’t instituted until the late 1990s: almost all the politicians who now say, “it’s impractical” to fund higher education themselves went to university for free. For another, we have to ask ourselves how we want to approach education – do we believe learning holds any value in and of itself, and do we as a society want to encourage it wherever possible, or only where there is economic benefit to be derived. These points aren’t required to argue against tuition fees, but should nonetheless not be neglected when contemplating education policy.
Arguments for tuition fees are rested in the fallacious ‘fact’ that education is only a benefit to the holder of the degree and not to the rest of society. Examining things holistically makes tuition fees much harder to defend. Based on the effect of debt and the benefit an educated population has for the economy, it should be argued not that we can’t afford to abolish tuition fees, but that we can’t afford not to.
If you agree with this article, or want to berate me for my naïveté, why not join us at the Free Education Demo next week. See you there!