Last week Labour announced plans to cut tuition fees to six grand a year. The response was phenomenal; such a radical and game-changing policy has finally ignited Miliband’s campaign, and now his landslide victory is all but guaranteed.
But the new policy plans have also torn open the festering wound that is this seemingly ceaseless debate. Should higher education be free? Should it be decidedly unfree?
As a proudly leftwing fella writing in a proudly leftwing publication – I hate to say it, but no. No, it should not. And I just don’t understand why the left is so frenetically obsessed with the notion of free tertiary education.
I’m going to have £60k of debt when I leave university, but weirdly enough it doesn’t keep me up at night because it’s just not the same as normal debt. Most of it will almost certainly be written off, and if it isn’t written off that will just mean I’m making enough money to comfortably pay it back. It is essentially a grad tax (why the fuck the government didn’t just call it that is literally beyond me), and everyone pretty much accepts this.
Now obviously, free education would be a wonderful thing. Everyone loves education, and it seems self-evident that higher education is great for the whole country, and can only help the economy, etc. etc. But we don’t live in an ideal society. Not everyone enters into higher education; although I’m not in any way denying its indirect positive effects on the rest of society, it clearly primarily benefits those who directly receive it. Secondary education is compulsory for everyone, and therefore it makes sense for it to be free at point of access, but when I’m going to be the person getting the majority of the value from of my degree (be it financial value from a better job, or just value in itself as a means to intellectual enrichment) surely I should contribute a bit towards it, when and if I’m financially able to?
Look at the BBC or the NHS – everyone agrees that like higher education they’re pretty amazing and have a hugely positive effect on our whole society, but nobody expects them to be completely free. Everyone who is financially able to pays taxes to fund the NHS, and anyone who wants to watch BBC TV channels pays the license fee.
I mean, tuition fees simply aren’t loans, they’re a tax. What’s wrong with tax? Why is tax inherently a dirty idea? Is money just meant to spring out of the ground and flutter gracefully into our welcoming, well-educated laps? Why should people who don’t go to university pay taxes to fund those who do? Surely to be in favour of that happening is not a very fair or leftwing position? Especially seeing as a greater majority of people with degrees are affluent and middle class, why shouldn’t they pay a bit more tax?
The next big argument against fees is that they might put off disadvantaged students from applying to university, and therefore increase what is already a seething shit hole of inequality in our higher education system. This argument is psychologically compelling and backed up by endless anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately it’s complete bollocks.
The actual facts have blown that argument out of the water. The massive hike in fees in 2010 utterly failed to stop people from disadvantaged backgrounds from coming to university, and the percentage of young people applying from the most disadvantaged areas has actually increased from 18 to 21 per cent. The left may not like that this proves them wrong, and we may feel like it goes against gut feeling and intuition, but we have to accept it because it’s simple undeniable fact and we’re rational human beings not raving ideologues.
So basically the free education movement is mostly middle-class students (or working-class students who are likely to end up earning more money than people without degrees), furious about having to pay some bloody tax.
You might have noticed by now, but all the above is basically exactly the Tory argument for tuition fees. But that doesn’t make it wrong. It makes the facts annoying and depressing, but we can’t just wish them away. And why can’t the Tories be right once in a blue moon? They’re not stupid, purposely evil people, cackling through a haze of cocaine whilst licking up orphan tears. We don’t always have to adhere to the tribal irrationality of party politics.
And yes, obviously, if we could destroy neoliberal capitalism then this whole thing wouldn’t be an issue, we wouldn’t have to pay for anything and we could frolic about in the fields and not go to Starbucks ever again, but every lefty thinkpiece seems to end by going “mmm yeah so really I guess the real root of the problem is the entrenched depravity of neoliberal capitalism” and let’s be realistic, it’s not going away anytime soon, so as leftwing students we should probably start picking our battles and spending a bit more time shouting about the plight of people other than ourselves.