Head to Head: Tuition Fees

An investigation is underway into post 18 education, with speculation that some degrees could be cut to £6,500, whilst others, namely science, could be raised. Recent conversations have also focussed on the increasingly high pay of vice chancellors and other senior staff. Given the fact that UK universities are the most expensive in Europe, the question of abolishing tuition fees is never too far from the surface.

Against Abolishing Tuition Fees- Campaign Agent Samuel Rhydderch

No government would impose tuition fees for fun, without proper cause.This argument is not motivated by self-interest, no individual wants to pay tuition fees; the argument is being made in the national interest, and the recognition that sometimes you have to do what is best for your country. 

Abolishing tuition fees would benefit those who are better off in society, for example, an Oxbridge graduate, who earns on average one million pounds more over a lifetime than someone with no qualifications, has a lot more to gain from scrapping tuition fees than someone from a working-class background. Labour’s Phil Wilson puts it best: “Abolishing tuition fees is a middle-class offer to young people on the whole from middle-class backgrounds”.

It is also worth noting that the cost to government, when scrapping tuition fees, amounts to approximately £11 billion pounds per year; wiping off student debt altogether would cost the government almost £60 billion pounds. This would mean that the government would have to borrow more money every year to fund students and universities. With the government already struggling to fund the NHS, it is difficult to argue that funding £11 billion pounds a year for students to go to university is a good use of public money.

This is also about students contributing to a degree which allows them to earn more than those without qualifications. At the moment students pay around 65 percent of the cost of a degree through their fees, the rest of the 35 percent is paid for by the taxpayer, through grants and loan subsidies. If the U.K. were to copy the European model for free universities, it would have to significantly hike up the rate of income tax to cover the costs of funding university students in the U.K. But why should a taxpayer, who did not attend university, pay more income tax to fund a student who did? 

We must also remember that student loans are not the same as your typical mortgage or banking loan. It is more of a ‘graduate tax’, you only pay it back when you start earning a certain amount, and even then, you only pay back an amount which is proportionate to your salary. For example, if you are earning £26,000 pounds a year, you will pay back £450 pounds of your salary per year, which is £37.50 pounds each month. If by the time you turn fifty you have not paid off your student debt, then it is wiped off completely and the government will take on your debt. Realistically no student is ‘saddled’ with crippling debt, it won’t ever cripple you, it is tailored to work around you – not against you.

We already have a tuition-free system in Scotland, however this implementation of free education has not been greatly successful. The nature of free higher education in Scotland means that the Scottish government, which has limited means, has to ration the amount of free university places it gives to Scottish students. This also means that Scottish universities often rely on the intake of English and international students – who pay full price - to compensate from the lack of government funding in Scotland.

Free tuition in Scotland hugely disadvantages poorer Scottish students, it has failed to fund poorer students – with only £10.4 million pounds provided to help those students attend university. This is a stark contrast to the tuition-paying students in England, where more than a third of a billion pounds went to those from disadvantaged backgrounds; that figure will grow, added to the fact that universities are mandated to spend one third of the £9250 pounds on disadvantaged students.

Universities in the U.K. need to compete worldwide; U.K. institutions are world-renowned for their teaching quality, home to world leading universities such as Oxbridge, UCL, LSE, Bristol and many others.These universities should be able to compete and grow freely without having to rely on government funding and lobbying. 

Students, such as I, should instead be campaigning for a limited increase in tuition costs. We are beyond free education in the U.K., we as a country would need to begin discussing other factors such as an increase on income tax before even beginning to think about abolishing tuition fees. That is, however, a discussion for another day.

In Favour of Abolishing Tuition Fees- Campaign Agent Lyell Tweed

Many proponents of tuition fees over the last few years have tried to suggest that their system of charging all undergraduate students £9,000 per year is progressive and an absolute necessity. For me, this is simply untrue. While the idea of students contributing a fee to their own higher education may have appeared reasonable at first, this has spiralled out of control. And what may also be concerning is the marketization of the whole system. I will argue that tuition fees cannot be linked with progressive ideas whatsoever and that there needs to a serious debate about them as an institution. 

People in favour of high tuition fees suggest that, if university tuition were free, this would mean that people who don’t go to university are simply subsidising those who do go. However simple this argument sounds, it doesn’t really add up. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has estimated that 75% of university graduates will not be able to pay back their loan. This makes sense when many graduates are now leaving university with debts of over £50,000, which is more than almost anywhere else in the developed world (IFS). So what happens when students do not pay back their loan? The treasury has to make up the bill through general taxation, making the extent of the fee unnecessary, as it is still thrown back to the public. This is compounded when we take into account the example that a social worker on the highest pay grade will never be able to pay off their loan, highlighting the un-progressive nature of the fee.

The idea that tuition fees has had no impact, maybe even a positive impact, on the amount or types of people attending university is also very naïve. Arguments have been made that higher tuition fees have meant that universities can open up more space for students, which in turn has seen a 43% increase in young people from poorer backgrounds attending university. Once again, there is a lot more to this argument than meets the eye. Poorer youngsters are still much less likely to go to university than their better-off classmates, with the more affluent also attending university more than ever before. And there is research to show that fear of debt does deter people from applying for university. This is reasonable considering that government figures suggest the poorest 40% of students can now expect to leave university with the largest debts of £58,815, £5,800 of this coming in interest charges before even leaving university. So the argument that tuition fees somehow make university more accessible for the poor is ill-founded.

We can clearly see that tuition fees cannot be described in any way as ‘progressive’ .Therefore, I would also argue that to say abolishing tuition fees is too expensive is simply avoiding the issue. As was shown in the Labour manifesto, the cut would be paid for by taxes on capital gains tax and people earning more than £80,000. This is effectively a tax cut for those earning between £21,000 and £45,000 paid for by people earning over £80,000, which is certainly a more progressive argument than simply stating statistics that more people are now going to university. Although this is just one suggestion.  

Therefore, I believe the argument in favour of abolishing tuition fees needs to be taken more seriously, and not simply as a Labour ploy to gain the votes of the young. When it has come to the point where vice chancellors of universities, who can now earn up to £400,000 thanks to tuition fees, are calling the current system ‘plain unfair’ on students, a serious debate needs to be had. The extreme amount of debt racked up by the poorest graduates, which is made worse by the fact that most students now don’t consider university any sort of value for money, cannot be justified in a society such as ours. Reform, in the direction of lower fees is possible; Germany was able to abolish tuition fees in 2014, while England has the highest tuition fees of anywhere in Europe.

It is clear that young people care deeply about this issue, as was shown in the 2017 election, and with the damaging effects it has on this large section of the population, a real analysis of the facts needs to take place.

Sources and Further Reading

Image: Alison Day @flickr

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