Tuition fees and U.K. politicsPosted: June 10, 2017
The U.K election result defied expectations. I did not predict how well the Labour Party would do. I thought there would be a Conservative landslide and, instead, they lost seats.
Conventional wisdom holds that elections are won from the centre. But when you have a fox-hunting, grammar school opening, hard Brexit Conservative Party up against the most socialist incarnation of the Labour Party seen in forty years, the centre exists only in minor parties. And they took a drubbing for a variety of reasons unique to each of them.
Jeremy Corbyn is not a great Labour leader. Any competent, moderate alternative would have won the election. On the other hand, Teresa May would not have called an election against a competent, moderate Labour leader so the point is moot. Corbyn’s is a massive achievement; a political earthquake that we should all pay attention to.
And I agree with a number of the policies in the Labour manifesto. One of those policies – the abolition of university tuition fees – is a key part of the story of British politics over the last 20 years and this is worth examining more closely.
I believe in free university education. I always have. This is not a conventional view in centrist circles but I have my reasons.
Firstly, once you charge people for something, you create a market. Markets and standards don’t go well together. Universities have an incentive to deliver courses that are appealing to students rather than those that represent the highest level of achievement in a discipline. We’ve seen this conflict before when Exam boards in England in the 2000s competed for custom, leading to the dumbing down of standards. Instead, university should be regulated and students should earn the right to go there rather than pay for it.
The conventional argument against my position is to ask why people who don’t go to university should pay for those who do. After all, a university degree tends to confer the advantage of increased earnings.
If that’s the case, people who attend university are already paying more through taxation, particularly if they tip into the higher rate of tax. If you increased the higher rate to pay for tuition then only wealthier people would pay. If you still think it’s unfair for a self-made businesswoman to pay for others to attend university then consider this: she might not have gone to university herself but she still benefits every time she gets sick or has someone do her accounts or employs a graduate.
If you are absolutely determined that graduates must pay then introduce a graduate tax levied on all graduates, including the baby boomers who went to university when it was free. Because another message of the U.K. election is that young people are sick of a system where older people with expensive houses receive benefits, while all young people receive are cuts and charges, with little or no hope of ever buying a home.
Interestingly, tuition fees were a non-issue in Scotland where students don’t have to pay them. Why is that? The short answer is that the U.K. government spends £10,374 per person in Scotland and only £8,638 per person in England (2014-15 figures).
The longer answer exposes a festering sore in U.K. democracy. The current fee regime was imposed on English students in 2004. It was passed by a narrow vote in the U.K. parliament with the help of Scottish MPs. The constituents of these Scottish MPs would not be required to pay the fees that they were voting for.
In addition, Scottish universities received an increase in funding as a result of the vote. The new tuition fees were counted as additional public spending in England and the way the U.K. is funded does not allow an increase in English public spending without an equivalent increase in public spending in Scotland. So Scotland received all of the benefits of tuition fees with none of the costs.
This system is wrong. When I criticise it I am either dismissed as a crank or some kind of English nationalist. I am neither. I just think it’s not fair. The U.K. is supposed to be a democracy and so it should fix this democratic defecit.
I think people dismiss me rather than argue against my position on this because there is no good argument to support the current arrangement. And that’s a worry. At some point, this issue is going to explode into public consciousness. Working class communities in the North of England will start to question why they are exposed to harsh school cuts, for example, when other parts of the U.K. are unaffected. And when they look under that rock…
Imagine the rise of an English demagogue who exploits the issue. In the current, volatile political climate, this is not so far-fetched. Responsible politicians need to fix the U.K.’s democratic defecit while it is still the concern of a few cranks like me.