Those in the U.K., and the more observant of you abroad, will have noticed the uproar recently about the recently passed motion to increase tuition fees. I’ve been watching this, and thinking about the issues behind it, and so here we go. It’s easiest to go about this by dispelling a few myths from both sides of the debate I’ve been repeatedly subjected to.
Myth 1: Students will leave university “saddled with debt”
While it’s technically true that the new graduate will “owe” money to the loans company, this debt is most unlike the more everyday world of debt. Everyday debt:
- affects your credit rating, - is evaluated by mortgage lenders, - is paid back at a fixed rate whether you are earning money or not, - potentially gets passed to your next of kin if you are so unlucky as to die, - is never “written off” without great personal problems, - gives people the right to force you to sell your stuff to pay for the debt, - and comes with many other somewhat unpleasant possible risks.
Student loan “debt”, on the other hand:
- doesn’t affect your credit rating, - isn’t evaluated as part of your liabilities by mortgage lenders, - doesn’t need to be paid off if you’ve not enough income to do so, - is yours only, written off if you die, - is automatically written off after 30 years, - is without security.
In effect, it can be seen more as a 9% tax on incomes above £21,000 in practical terms. Painting it as a more typical debt is very misleading.
Prospective students need to be shown that this “debt” is not like “real debt”, which they have been rightly told should be minimised. That this fact has not been made clearer is one of the biggest problems of this debate—and the way it has been willfully misrepresented by protesters and their supporters is a most underhand and disgraceful tactic.
Myth 2: Free higher education is a right
If I had a pound for each time I’ve heard this over the last few weeks, it feels like I’d be able to pay my way through university several times over. The most ridiculous thing is that of course university isn’t free to anyone, as it’s not like government money grows on some mysterious money tree rather than being collected from the population in the form of taxes. Statements like these lead me to believe certain protesters lack the intelligence to have accessed higher education based on merit in the first place.
And yes, access to education, based on merit rather than means, is what should be provided by a society—not a blanket access policy. It even says so in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 26:
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
While the UDHR isn’t a definitive source on what’s a “right” and what isn’t, I think this is reasonable. And tuition fees don’t go against this. You do not pay them to enter university, instead you pay them after you leave and only when you have the means to pay them. If you never have the means, you never have to pay. Access to university should be based on merit and on the ability of society to provide education, not on the richness of the individual—tuition fees do not go against this.
This comes back to the scare-mongering around “debt”. Society needs to pay for education: it’s a high maintenance activity requiring significant resources, equipment and expertise. This doesn’t come cheaply. While an educated populace benefits society, it also benefits the individual to a significant degree; witness the life expectancy indicators for the more vs. less educated.
In addition, when you take the position that education is a right of any kind within a society, you must also accept that society has to have the means for paying for this right—and that you as primary beneficiary from your particular degree course have an important part to play in this payment, both for yourself and, importantly, for others. As more people go to university, the costs increase. Successive governments are trying to find the fairest way to pay for this; in other words, to ensure access to education is based on merit not means.
If you look carefully at the system of checks and balances around this particular legislation, it becomes obvious that it is not intended to dissuade people from poorer backgrounds to study; in fact, many lower earners may be better off under the new system than the current one, and higher earners pay more. The latest research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies indicates that:
By decile of graduate lifetime earnings, the Government’s proposals are more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne. The highest earning graduates would pay more on average than both the current system and that proposed by Lord Browne, while lower earning graduates would pay back less.
Myth 3: From the other side: “I don’t benefit from your education”
This myth relates to another stupefying statement I’ve heard from the other side. “Why should I pay for your education?” asked a member of the public to a protestor. Why, my dear man, because it builds the car you drive, the house you live in, the planes you fly in, the sewers you deposit your waste in, the electricity your TV is powered by, the boiler which keeps you warm. And on, and on, and on. It’s as stupidly unthinking as the statement that education should be “free”.
The state—society—should be paying part of the cost of university as the society is enriched by an educated population. In addition to all the gadgetry and technological prowess we have achieved through education, there is the cultural enrichment provided by the understanding of history, society and our place in the world as people. There is also the fact we are even able to have this debate in the first place, relying on principles and axioms derived from hundreds of years of education.
I don’t think any member of a developed country can seriously claim that they don’t benefit from the education provided by their society.
And so, we’ve looked at the three most irritating myths bandied about in the last few weeks and how they are at best distortions of the truth and at worst downright incorrect.
Tuition fees are one suggestion for solving the problem of rising education costs. The money for this has to come from somewhere. I’d have significantly more respect for those protesting if they had both come up with their own ideas for how to deal with this issue and had appeared to have actually taken any time to understand the proposals rather than blindly accepting and propagating distorted versions of them. The money has to come from somewhere—either that or, of course, we can go back to the days when far fewer people went to university and so the payment burden on society was less.
As both sides benefit, the tuition fees debate should be around what the ideal balance between society and the individual being educated is as the numbers of people in higher education increases, not whether one or the other should pay in full.
I have always thought that the Lib Dem’s pledge to abolish the tuition fee system was rather rash in the first place; their manifesto contained scant details on how they were going to raise the required money from other sources to pay for education.
My view is that the use of tuition fees alteration to alter the society/individual balance isn’t necessarily a bad thing of itself, but that they debate has been so hijacked by extreme short-sightedness that the real debate isn’t happening—so I can’t make a proper decision as to whether they—as a concept and as a current implementation—are the right balance because the really important viewpoints are being drowned out by the shouting of the unthinking masses.