Tuition Fees: 10 Reasons Against
Emma Clery sets out Ten Good Reasons Why University Tuition Fees Are A Bad Idea
‘Our society benefited from having a better system in the past; we owe it to future generations not to saddle them with a worse system for the future.’ (Stefan Collini).
Tuition fees at public universities in England are now, on average, the highest in the world. The reform has already been judged by monitoring authorities to be a bankrupt idea. It is without question a rushed and ill-considered experiment, out of line with the policies of other Western democratic nations. The arguments against this high fees regime are many and various. This blog looks at the new system from different angles in order to show the impact it will have on individuals and on society as a whole, on universities and on the national economy, offering ten good reasons why university tuition fees are a bad idea.
Reason1 High Tuition Fees Increase Inequality
Reason2 High Tuition Fees Have Created Unfair Anomalies
Reason3 Middle Income Graduates Pay More than the Rich
Reason4 Graduate Debt Damages Life Chances
Reason5 The Repayment Scheme is an Economic Timebomb
Reason6 Damage to University Finance
Reason7 Damage to University Culture
Reason8 The Future of Universities in Question
Reason9: Against the National Interest.
Reason10 Out of Line with All Other Developed Countries
Read the whole Fees Pamphlet
Ironically, it was a Conservative government, under Harold MacMillan, that first introduced student maintenance grants and free higher education in 1962. It also commissioned the Robbins Report of 1963, which recommended a massive expansion of the university sector. Following World War II, universities were seen as a public good, and it was recognised that Britain was lagging behind when it came to investing in higher education as an engine of economic growth and the route to a more equal, skilled, creative and cohesive society.
Under the Labour government of the mid-60s, this vision was implemented by the founding of new universities and a doubling of student numbers. Those who had benefited financially from university education were largely responsible for the initial expansion through payment of higher rates of taxation, and they continued to contribute in this way. The 1962 Education Act established a funding model of long-term benefits passed from generation to generation. It is this model that was shattered when the House of Commons voted to lift the cap on tuition fees in December 2010. Money that could have supported the next generation into higher education has been diverted to short-term objectives: bailing out the financial sector, cutting higher rate income tax, inheritance tax, and corporation tax to win votes, and the debateable priority of rapidly reducing the Budget deficit.
Tuition fees of £1000 per year were introduced in 1998, and maintenance grants for all but the most under-privileged were abolished, to be replaced by loans and means-tested grants (both limited to significantly less than the full living costs). Fees increased to £3000 in 2004. In 2010, without an electoral mandate, the new coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats proposed to slash the direct teaching grant to universities and allow tuition fees to increase up to £9000 per year. After graduation, individuals must repay the loan at a rate of 9 per cent above the new earnings threshold of £21,000. The Conservatives had made no mention of such a radical measure in their manifesto, and the Liberal Democrats had run on an explicit anti-fees pledge, attracting many young people to their cause. In spite of widespread protest, the policy was implemented in 2012.
The government that introduced the measure claimed that it puts students ‘at the heart of the system’. And so it does: as consumers and debtors. But it does not put students at the heart of the higher education system as people, with intellectual gifts to develop, lives to lead, and a contribution to make to wider society.
The high fees regime can still be resisted and reversed, and in the meantime pressure can be brought to bear on potential future changes which will make the system even more damaging. Elite universities are arguing that the cap on fees should be lifted altogether, creating a level of personal debt unthinkable for students from economically deprived backgrounds. Already, the system is being adjusted in a way that will increase the financial pressure on graduates. The government has announced that the earnings threshold at which repayment begins will not rise with inflation, meaning more of the loan will need to be repaid sooner by a greater number of low to middle-earners. At the same time, the means-tested maintenance grant, the last vestige of public support for disadvantaged students, will be abolished in 2016 and replaced by larger loans and consequently greater debt.
What is to be done?
Progressive taxation is the answer, and an end to the spurious arguments on deficit reduction as an excuse for cuts to the public sector and the marketising and privatising of public assets.
It would cost and estimated £7.1bn to reinstate free Higher Education and £3bn to restore maintenance grants. The labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has proposed that this could be funded by a 7% national insurance rise on incomes over £50,000 and 2.5% higher corporation tax, or else by a slowdown in reducing the deficit.
The ‘fairness’ of the high fees regime is the lie that must be overturned. Higher education is a right which should be accessible to all those who qualify, without involving crippling levels of personal debt. To abolish fees is not to make university education ‘free’. That is a misleading term. Higher education has previously been paid for by previous generations of working people, and predominantly by people who were graduates themselves. Since 1962, every eligible student has had this benefit. The payment for higher education is a precious legacy passed on from one generation to the next. The tripling of tuition fees in 2012 shattered this social bond.
How do you deal with the high fees regime, if you are planning to go to university?
There is the option of studying for far less in other EU countries, at prestigious universities where many programmes are run in English. Highflyers could apply to study at top universities in the US with an array of scholarships and bursaries. At the very least, it would be worth waiting two or even three years before committing, in order to make a thoroughly informed and mature decision about the choice of subject and the place of study, ideally earning some money in the meantime to offset future living costs and reduce subsequent debt.
Continue to protest. Opposition is organised by the National Union of Students, the National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees, the Campaign for the Public University and the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Join marches and sign petitions. Write to your MP whenever there is a key vote. Increase public pressure to expand properly funded further and higher education sectors. The core idea of education as a public good must be reclaimed and reaffirmed, as the basis for a fairer, more dynamic and unified society.
BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), (2011), Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, June, 2011.
Collini, Stefan (2015) ‘Students deserve better than this consumerist fallacy,’ Guardian, 5/8/15.
Conlon, Gavan, and Pietro Patrignani (2011), The Returns to Higher Education Qualifications, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills Research Paper 45, June 2011.
Hermanns, Deborah (2014), ‘Germany is scrapping tuition fees – why can’t England?’, Guardian, 7/10/14.
Holmwood, John, ed. (2011), A Manifesto for the Public University (London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic). Available open access, here.
NUS (National Union of Students) (2014), A Roadmap for Free Education. (Wintour, 2015).
Scott, Peter (2014), ‘Let’s fight the idea that high tuition fees are inevitable’, Guardian, 7/10/14.
Walker, Ian (2013), ‘How much is a degree really worth?’ Guardian, 20/7/13.
Willetts, David (2015), Issues and Ideas on Higher Education: Who Benefits? Who Pays?, The Policy Institute at King’s College London, June, 2015.