The Genesis of Tuition Fees
It is a fundamental principle of socialism that education should be provided equally and freely to all. It is a fundamental principle of neoliberalism that aspiration should not be taxed. And yet the Labour governments of 1997-2010 broke both of these principles – the socialist one they claim as their heritage, and the neoliberal one which they adopted under Tony Blair in a bid for power.
How did they do this, you ask? Simple – Labour first introduced, and then trebled, tuition fees for University courses. Before 1998, you did not pay for your education – it would be to go against both the post-war social democratic consensus and the post-Thatcherite neoliberal consensus for such a thing to happen. John Major first floated the idea of alternative sources of higher education funding, but it was the Blair/Brown New Labour project which finally implemented the policy.
The Coalition government, of course, are now most linked in the minds of the British people with tuition fees – as well they might be. The spectacular way in which the Liberal Democrat promise to scrap tuition fees entirely was broken is the stuff of political legend; what is even more worrying, though, is that the Conservative party wanted to remove the cap on fees altogether, leaving the UK higher education system completely open to market forces in a way even the USA cannot match (not all American colleges are for-profit institutions). As it stands, students are now saddled with a £9,000-a-year debt.
A Tax on Aspiration
It is pretty clear to see how tuition fees violate the principle of free and equal access to education – in short, it makes education no longer free and restricts access to it on the basis of wealth (or willingness to accrue large amounts of long-term debt). It is somewhat less straightforward to see how such a policy constitutes an aspiration tax, but all it requires is a moment’s consideration.
Education can be seen as a way of improving one’s chances in life: it is no secret that even fairly mundane jobs these days often require a degree, and access to many professions – law, teaching, the civil service etc. – is almost impossible without one. Possession of a higher education degree, then, can improve your quality of life quite considerably; it is, in short, a key to what is for many a lifestyle they aspire to. Simply put, someone with a degree earns on average 85% more than someone with only GCSEs, while someone with only A Levels earns just 15% more. A degree, in the brutal monetary terms in which we are forced to see it, equals earning potential.
Slapping a £27,000 price tag (more if it’s a longer course, plus the cost of paying back your student loan, plus interest, plus other costs – the true cost of getting a degree is estimated around £100,000) on this potential makes it harder for people to access. Though loans are of course available, taking on that kind of debt is a terrifying prospect for many young people. It puts them off furthering their education, and application levels – despite having risen this year – are still below the level they were before the tuition fee hike. Consider that the economy has ‘recovered’ during that time, and population has grown by three-quarters of a million, and this is an alarming thing.
So, tuition fees are a method of imposing what is in essence a tax on the aspiration of young people to improve their lives. They also discourage degrees which do not translate directly into a high-earning job at the end of it, such as finance or law – in order to pay off this huge debt, students are leaving behind courses in the arts and humanities in favour of the physical and social sciences. The true purpose of learning – the acquisition of knowledge – has been supplanted by bald monetary calculations.
It should also be noted that tuition fees are not equal across the UK – in England, they are capped at £9,000; in Scotland, they do not exist; in Wales, grants exist to cover the first £5,315; in Northern Ireland, they are £3,685. Even more ridiculous, EU students in Scotland and Wales receive the same tuition fees as Scottish/Welsh nationals; whilst English and Northern Irish students have to pay. This patchwork system of fees means that the English in particular are grossly discriminated against.
What’s Their Motivation?
So, why would the establishment parties want to impose such an aspiration tax? It isn’t for the economic benefit to the country – it is estimated that the average student won’t actually pay back 43% of their loan – they’ll just be saddled with a huge debt for 30 years – and the increase to £9,000 will actually end up losing the government money. Furthermore, Higher Education in total costs £27.9 billion a year; the UK spends £45.6 billion a year on defence. What would YOU consider more important?
No, the real reason behind the aspiration tax is an attempt to prevent students from furthering themselves. It stands to reason: knowledge is power, and the ruling elite are quite fond of having all the power, thank you very much. A degree also, as we have discussed, translates directly into economic benefit – and as we know, thanks to the neoliberal deregulation of the financial sector, there’s only so much money to go around. It is in the interests of those who have it to prevent others from acquiring it – hence the aspiration tax.
Overall, tuition fees are a policy designed only to hurt students. The recent rise is going to end up actually costing the government £5 billion a year anyway; why not just scrap it? The Treasury saves money, students aren’t faced with mountains of debt and education might actually come to be seen as a priority again.