Tuition fees and U.K. politics 

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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.


7 thoughts on “Tuition fees and U.K. politics 

  1. IF you had a tertiary culture in which academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge was the primary value, rather than facile iconoclasm and synchronised whinging, and IF universities genuinely still were the preserve of the academically deserving, and IF governments of all stripes had not slavishly adopted the foolish view that more kids attending university was automatically socially beneficial, and IF there hadn’t been such a ridiculous proliferation of courses, only a tiny fraction of which merit the status of a tertiary degree, and IF admnistration costs (and the salaries pocketed by the nomenklatura of university administration) had not ballooned frighteningly since the 1970s, then taxpayer-subsidised (a far more honest term than “free”) university education might make sense. But in the current climate it simply doesn’t, for all the reasons above. And the culture implicit in all those points above isn’t going to change overnight…AND all of those trends would only be accelerated if tuition fees were fully subsidized, for simple economic reasons.

    Your statement “markets and standards don’t go well together” is a bit superficial. In the matter of consumer goods and services, markets and standards go very well together (or, at least, they go a good deal better together than the alternative), as the history of the past hundred years has shown quite strikingly. When it comes to matters where the broader social good is concerned, things obviously get a bit more complicated, and I tend to agree with you. I’ve always been a supporter of public education up to secondary level – and for what it’s worth, I think the federal funding of private schools is quite absurd, a politically-convenient policy-on-the-fly used by Menzies to win the 1961 election which has grown out of all proportion, and for which various specious excuses have been offered over the years.

    But tertiary education is a different ball game entirely. It’s easy to make a case for universal literacy, numeracy and general knowledge bringing broad social benefits which transcend a user-pays system. So long as universities were committed to preserving the great achievements of human culture, extending scientific knowledge, and/or preparing young people for professions which required detailed hierarchical knowledge too complicated for an apprenticeship, I would be in favour of publicly-funded tertiary education, because a similar case could be made for the underlying social benefits implicit in these endeavours. But in an age when so many kids come out of uni with expertise in little more than prattling vacuously about postcolonialism or identity politics, or playing around with video software, it’s a bit harder to argue in favour of it. Would you want to tell a kid slogging through four years of an apprenticeship to become a sparky or a plumber that his future taxes are going to subsidise such things? I’d suggest a stiff drink beforehand.

  2. Hi Greg.
    “Jeremy Corbyn is not a great Labour leader.”
    “Corbyn’s is a massive achievement; a political earthquake that we should all pay attention to.”
    I think you are using “Progressive” logic here.
    The “evidence” of Corbyn not being a great leader is largely the opinions of middle class, middle aged “Progressive” liberals. (Some are the same characters pushing “Progressivism” in education.)

    The Actual Data.
    Hugely increased membership.
    Hugely increased numbers of young voters.
    Corbyn surviving a ridiculously biased media and a coup.
    This would suggest to me that he might just be becoming a great leader of the Labour Movement.

    To suggest that a middle class, middle aged “Progressive” liberal from the right of the Labour party would have done better is the equivalent of someone seeing the huge success of synthetic phonics and suggesting that it is very good but “whole word” could do better.

    Corbyn is connecting with many non voters who have been abandoned by the political system and turning them into Labour Party voters and members.

    Best Wishes

      1. But then there would no doubt be complaints that the phonics candidate had failed to inculcate a lifelong love of elections…

      2. No Greg.
        You know the problem introducing Synthetic Phonics nationally is the middle class, middle aged “Progressive” liberal teachers who refuse to deliver Synthetic Phonics properly.

        Corbyn has had this problem to deal with. He is now winning that battle.

        Would you suggest he should now use the equivalent of a national phonics check and retrain or retire his equivalent of synthetic phonics refusers?

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