The recent interview with Julian Huppert in The Cambridge Student saw the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge reignite the tuition fees debate. Decrying Labour’s plans to reduce tuition fees to £6,000, he called for free university education. This move either smacks of a utopian belief that the Exchequer is a bottomless pit of money or it constitutes a cynical political ploy to win back the disgruntled student vote. Either way, the idea is reckless.
First off, the presumption that free universal higher education enjoys a quasi-moral justification needs to be questioned. Why should higher education, instead of being paid for largely by those who attend university, be funded in its entirety by taxpayers up and down the country? Over half of the taxpaying population have decided, or will decide in future, to miss out on the thrills of university life yet they will find themselves paying a great deal to support the ever-increasing number who do follow the higher-education route.
Our taxes go towards many different areas such as the NHS or defence, from which we may all potentially benefit, either continuously or at some specific point in our life. That is why we should all be happy to contribute. Conversely, it cannot be argued that the benefits of free higher education are universal in the same way, since they do not extend to those who opt to enter the workforce straight off. It is rather similar to tax breaks for married couples – just as we shouldn’t penalise couples for deciding not to marry, nor should we levy unjustified taxes on those who seek a job without prior attendance at university.
Some would argue that we all indirectly reap the rewards of higher education. By honing and improving the human capital of our younger generation, we are ensuring that we have a skills set which can meet the future needs of our economy. This argument perhaps had some credibility twenty years ago when fewer attended university. It is an economic nonsense now. A paucity of teaching at many universities and a proliferation of less rigorous courses leave graduates entering the world of work no more qualified than they were at the age of 18. Taxation revenues are no longer being efficiently spent in higher education.
This may all sound rather cynical. However, explain this statistic: 47% of recent graduates find themselves in non-graduate jobs. For one reason or another, we have too many graduates. Almost one-half are leaving university with little prospect of a higher salary than if they had entered the workforce at the age of 18. By making tuition fees free, taxpayers would be funding often in excess of £30,000 per individual attendee with little prospect of any meaningful return on their money in at least one-half of cases. Surely that is economically senseless – just think how much further that money could go in our cash-stripped NHS.
Access is frequently cited as the principal justification for providing free higher education. The argument goes like this: everyone should have the chance to attend university regardless of their background, ergo there should be no tuition fees. Of course, everyone should have that opportunity. And they do. When the coalition government raised tuition fees, a highly emotive reaction ensued amongst students. It was almost as if the money was being demanded upfront at gunpoint. But it isn’t. You only pay back once you are earning a reasonable amount of money. Incidentally, it is for this reason that the government is now facing a debt time bomb. As a result of graduates often failing to secure high-wage jobs, up to 45% of loans for university fees and living expenses are unlikely to be repaid. In that sense, university education is far too often free.
Some might still argue that, even if the system has its progressive aspects, it is not particularly pleasant to leave university burdened with a pile of debt which you may eventually have to repay. It’s not. But most things in life come at a cost – if university fails to teach you anything else, it should at least teach you that.