David Willetts higher education old people

I’m leftwing and I don’t want a free education

Patrick Brooks
Patrick Brooks  /  13 Comments

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.

  • Myers Fox

    “Look at … 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.”

    Nor is it completely free, but the principle of the NHS is that no one has to pay at the point of use. Instead, the community as a whole funds it through general taxation. Why do you necessarily reject us doing the same for higher education?

    (Incidentally, I also believe in there being some kind of graduate contribution towards the cost of higher education given that its benefits are shared unequally throughout society, but I couldn’t help picking up this inconsistency.)

    • Joseph Dudley

      I would argue that the crucial difference from the NHS is that 100% of people can and likely will use the NHS at some point, so it’s reasonable that we all contribute to it and therefore don’t pay at point of use.

      With higher education, only about 49% (HEIPR 2011/12) of people (in that study aged 17-30) go to university, and though educating to someone doubtless has benefits for the whole country, the most direct benefit is to the graduate, so I think it’s reasonable that they contribute most.


  • LeftOfLeft

    Is it a new phenomena, or have I only just noticed it, that lots of liberals are claiming to be left wing and then preaching liberal ideas to the left with from their illusory position of leftist authority?
    You don’t get to be left-wing because you like the sound of the label… You get the label due to your beliefs.

  • This makes no sense.


    • This makes no sense.


  • Stepford TAB


  • Stepford TAB


  • Stepford TAB
  • this article is sooooooo bad

    Patrick brooks is a really really really silly sausage!

  • Alex

    I think you are missing the whole point… It is currently UNFAIR.

    Rich people get better quality education that poorer people. Simple as. Is that fair?

    Is a rich family automatically entitled to a higher quality of education?

    No, you say? Everybody is equal you say?

    Well then education should be EQUAL too.

    We can afford it, so why not have it? There is no good reason for education not to be free, considering we all pay tax on practically EVERYTHING anyway…

    If the UK government collected all the tax that is dodged by companies worldwide tomorrow, then we could pay for a free education for EVERYBODY in the country.

    So there is no GOOD reason why anybody should have to pay for education

    • Cheska Alice Rycraft

      How do rich ppl get better education in the context of tertiary education? As the author correctly states, the loan only has to be paid off when it has “paid off”, so to speak, when the graduate gets a good job. The financially disadvantaged are also entitled to non-repayable grants. If anything, it is easier for students with very poor parents (and also very rich of course) to finance their studies than it is for students whose parents are on an average income.

      Also, just because something isn’t “fair” doesn’t mean the Government has a duty to intervene.

      Oh, sorry, I forgot to add lots of capital letters to my post, which is unfortunate because perhaps you won’t understand my point now. PERHAPS THIS WILL MAKE IT EASIER FOR YOU

      • Alex

        You are ignoring the fact that rich people don’t have to spend time and money paying this loan off (It doesn’t matter than the loan is proportional to how much they earn… They are still paying it off. IT IS STILL A LOAN). Also, these loans have interest. I know this. My ENTIRE DEGREE should have cost £15’000 in total. However, after just 3 years of inflation (DURING MY COURSE), at 3%, I now owe £18’000 (upon leaving university). Just 3 years. I have to pay an extra £3’000, that a rich person would not have had to pay, simply because I cannot afford £15’000 in one go, unlike a rich person. A rich person can pay this student loan off immediately, at no real cost to them.

        Unfortunately, I only earn £18’000 at the moment. That means, that I am only paying £8 a month OFF my loan. However £24 a month is being ADDED onto my loan as interest. My student loan is INCREASING every single month, and the amount it is increasing by, is also increasing. It is given, that after 30 years, all student loan debts are cleared. But hold on a second… If I stayed on £18’000 a year for the next 20 years (plus 20 years of interest), and then I got a GREAT job at 40’000 a year for the LAST 10 years. I would end up with over double the loan I started with. I WILL have to pay ALL of this off. Therefore, it is UNFAIR. I am paying over double of what a rich person paid over 30 years ago. This is completely possible, and UNFAIR.

        Also… You can only get a student loan for 1 degree… So what if I do a degree in knitting, spend 5 years paying it off and living my life, and then 5 years down the line, realise knitting is not for me, and I want to get another degree in something else? I cannot… I am fucked… because a poor person can only get 1 student loan. A rich person can simply pay it off, no problems. The poor person is stuck with a degree in knitting, and no way to get another one. Therefore, it is UNFAIR.

        Tertiary education is college / university level yes? What about private colleges? These have better facilities, higher paid/trained teachers, lower numbers of pupils per teacher, therefore, better education for rich people. What about private universities? What about high level universities? Take Oxford and Cambridge for example… Only a handful of scholarships are handed out per year (to poor people), yet rich people who can afford the tuition fee’s don’t have to worry about scholarships… they can just pay.

        Therefore, the BEST universities are only educating the people who can AFFORD it. The VAST MAJORITY of politicians came from the SAME university. This university is also mainly home to RICH STUDENTS that can afford the huge fee’s (and the odd scholarship). This means, that the majority of our elected officials, are rich! That means they DON’T EVEN REPRESENT THE MAJORITY. This is UNFAIR.

        The non-repayable grants are NOT for tuition fee’s. Tuition fee’s and grants are two completely separate things, therefore, it is an invalid argument. The grants are to HELP THEM SURVIVE whilst at college/university…. (travel costs, food costs, equiptment , etc). Rich people DO NOT WORRY about this cost. A lot of students do not get a part time job either whilst studying, because they want to put ALL their effort, into this degree that they are going to spend the a lot of their life paying paying off.

        The BIGGEST counter argument that you missed about student fee’s, was the article posted in 2014 in the guardian, stating that the student loan system is eventually going to cost the government MORE than it has generated for them. This is clearly a failure, and a failure at the expense of poor people, no less.


        You say “If anything, it is easier for students with very poor parents (and also very rich of course) to finance their studies than it is for students whose parents are on an average income.”

        This is complete bullshit… Why do I know this? I am an average student. My parents ARE NOT rich. However, they are DEFINITELY not poor. Therefore, I am in this “average” category…

        “Oh, sorry, I forgot to add lots of capital letters to my post, which is unfortunate because perhaps you won’t understand my point now. ”

        Ahahaa oh dear, there is no need to be arrogant. Especially considering that the arguments you proposed are pretty poor…

        There is also no need to assume that I won’t understand. You are making ad hominem attacks, whilst simultaneously providing poor arguments. You are at risk of making yourself look like you do not know how to debate correctly.

        Capital letters are used to emphasise. I used capital letters to emphasise what I am saying. It is not to make it easier for you to read, and I am definitely not shouting those words… I assumed people already knew this. I could emphasise words by putting them in inverted speech marks, but it is easier to just hold the shift key whilst typing. Clearly you missed the point and assumed I was in some caps lock rage. You were mistaken. This was a poor assumption on your part

        Also… You said “you won’t understand my point now”

        What point? Your points are absolute bullshit. Your first point (simplified) is “How is it unfair, when poor people get student loans”. That point is completely invalid when the whole debate is in regard to inequality. If you think a student loan is EQUAL to being rich, then you are massively mistaken… Your second point was to do with grants… Again…. A grant does NOT cover the tuition fee’s, and a grant is used for other purposes. Also, if you are a student, and you DO NOT work, (because you are studying) then the grant BARELY even covers your rent, never mind anything else…

        Your final point…. Hilarious by the way. “Also, just because something isn’t “fair” doesn’t mean the Government has a duty to intervene”

        The government do ALL kinds of shit they should not do. They intervenes in drug policies… When it has LITERALLY BEEN PROVEN that prohibition DOES NOT work. They are not putting forth a bill to force companies to pay their tax, that would generate billions in tax. They could use that on hospitals, education, rail and mail services… They could even use that to lower our VAT etc.

        That just shows how fucking backwards the government is… They are supposed to WORK FOR THE PEOPLE… Not for business. Not for corporations. When a system is biased, and clearly broken, who else is going to intervene? It is the public’s jobs to get the government to do this shit…. If the pubic don’t care, neither do the government

        The government has a duty to its population. Racism is not fair, but the government still intervene. Tax avoidance by the public is not fair, but the government intervene (only when it suits them, obviously). So why shouldn’t they intervene in education when that is clearly not fair either? Education should be free for all. This would give everybody an EQUAL opportunity in life. This IS THE JOB of the government. To make society equal and fair.

        What the hell do you think the government were for?

        I look forward to an analytical, thought provoking response from you, where you provide critical counter arguments as to why education should not be free for all, and why everybody should pay for education, no matter what their status.

        Obviously, in this critical response, you won’t make the poor debating mistake of attacking my character again.

        • Cheska Alice Rycraft

          What on earth about my original post made you think I would provide you with an analytical, thought provoking response founded on quality debating skills?

          I will say, though, that I did not state that people’s ability to pay off tertiary education is the same. I just said that rich people didn’t get a ‘better’ tertiary education. Yes, they may be put off because of the fees, but that is their decision and not the same thing. The point about being put off is why I mentioned the grants, by the way.

          I am also in the “average” category. Those whose parents are richer than mine can afford to give them money. Those whose parents are poorer than mine instead receive money in the form of grants. My parents are well-off enough that I don’t qualify for a grant, but they cannot afford to finance me either.

          I get your point about loan interests and such, but how far should the Government really go in levelling the playing field between the rich and the poor? Tertiary education is a choice and a privilege, not a right. Depending on several factors not limited to finance, people take a decision as to whether to attend university - if they lack the intelligence to do an academic degree, for example, they may decide it isn’t a wise choice for them. Is it fair that they don’t have those talents and brains? Probably not. Do I think the government has a duty to rectify that? No. And my opinion is the same regarding the financial dimension.

          By the way, I am well aware that you used the caps for emphasis rather than rage. I was making a joke based on the popularly-held viewpoint that using caps like that is the written equivalent of shouting to make sure your voice is heard.