Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I wouldn’t say I’m an Andy Burnham fan. I was never into Thunderbirds, and I don’t buy the whole enemys enemy is my friend thing. But a point he made last week has stuck with me. I think we need to return to it – though I don’t agree with his reasons for doing so. Sorry, Nick Clegg, to exhume old wounds. Sorry, Ed Miliband, to rerun your embarrassment). Sorry, ConHome, I know I’ve addressed this topic before. But here we are, anyway, back to higher education (HE) funding with Burhams proposal to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax.
He gets away with this posturing because, clearly, enough people still don’t (or choose not to) understand the system in place. This incomprehension or misdirection is exemplified by those who, like Labour’s Captain Scarlet, continue to call for a graduate tax. It’s hilarious, of course, because what the Conservative-led coalition introduced is practically that. Although, surely, it’s actually preferable to one: it is, effectively, an income-contingent, fixed-term tax liability. Students don’t pay anything until they can (if ever) afford to, at which point it’s taken from their wages gradually, until it’s paid off.
There’s something else, however, which isn’t quite so hilarious. Obfuscation hasn’t simply led to political opportunism; it’s also led to a different and much more concerning confusion.
We all know that we have a problem with debt. And that this problem isn’t peculiar to Britain. Admirably, current Conservative economic policy centres on an attempt to move away from this – to move from being a debt-based society. This needs to be an aim not just for the country, but for individuals, too: debt, unsurprisingly, is a serious cause of poverty.
In that sense, opposition to substantial tuition fees which are paid through what is referred to as a loan is to be expected. Regardless of how and when it’s settled, students are, technically, taking on an immense amount of personal debt ‘averaging at more than £44,000’. And this will, most likely, continue to rise, as the limits at which universities are allowed to set their fees change over the years. Ok, this might change for the better; I don’t have time now, but I’d argue that greater freedom over charging would be advantageous. The situation will develop, however and some students will, almost certainly, acquire larger loans.
Whilst the American higher education system has much to be envied its range of educational programmes, broader undergraduate degrees, and philanthropy-exploiting financial support network – its costs, and, consequently, its fees, are spiraling out of control, as institutions compete over what can they offer.
Ivory Tower, which aims to reveal how students end up paying more and more, yet gaining less and less, points out that ’68 per cent of students in public universities don’t graduate in four years’ – whilst sketching a culture of climbing walls in atriums, drunken fights in swimming pools, and online teaching replacing classrooms. The film’s sensationalism somewhat depletes its credibility, but it does make a strong argument for students needing to think carefully about value for money, and which form (if any) of higher education will give them a fitting education, rather than fit photos for their Facebook account.
And what about the cost of living? Criticisms that Conservatives only want the rich to benefit from university education were reignited by the Budget’s announcement that maintenance grants will be replaced by loans. The biggest flaw in these criticisms is that this approach in which students pay when they, themselves, can afford to further removes one’s familial socio-economic background from the higher education equation.
Detractors also miss the point that whilst the current support system is extensive providing (tapering) grants to those whose parental income goes up to £42,620 it is already highly dependent on loans. If student living costs are between around £5,070 and £10,590 per year, then even the highest grant amount (£3,387 for those whose parental income is less than £25,000) cannot be sufficient in itself. The maximum maintenance loan is £8,009; it will increase in 2016.
But, surely you cry all this still hinges upon debt, doesn’t it? And we’ve decided that debt is bad, haven’t we? But that said, there are different kinds of debt, aren’t there? And taking on some of them is usually deemed to be necessary, or even sensible. Yet the media furore surrounding student loans seems to bracket them with pay-day loans rather than mortgages. (I’m not suggesting that they’re usefully comparable to either.) Yes, student debt is a huge and to many, worrying responsibility, but we need to be clearer about what it means. We need to decide where student loans fit into the wider debt question: students should be clearer in their choices about this, and politicians in their rhetoric.
It looks as if the current system might offer a sustainable method of funding universities. And this is crucial because remember they don’t charge fees to conform with some corrupt ideological global order. Rather, Britain is fortunate to have truly world-leading universities, and this is expensive. More and more students, and higher and higher standards, means more and more cost. University education was never free, and it’s only fair that its increasing amount of elective beneficiaries contribute to its increasingly vast expense.
Happily (if you think that constant expansion is good), this hasn’t dulled demand. Indeed, making higher education free at the point of delivery has (let’s forget about the correlation/causation chasm for now) inspired more people and, particularly, those from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to university. This claim was at the heart of the Conservative election campaign: ‘In 2015, 18 year olds from across the UK were more likely to apply to higher education than in any previous year () In 2015, application rates of 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in all countries of the UK increased to the highest levels recorded.’
But even if we agree that the system is working, we must reconsider how we regard student loans. If we want growing numbers of people from all backgrounds to continue to apply to university, we should examine whether attitudes towards debt are influenced by familial experience. And whether taking out a student loan increases one’s chances of having an unhealthy relationship with debt later in life.
We need to educate people about education, and its costs. And we need to do it in a fair and clear way. It’s can’t be as simple as changing the term from ‘loan’ to ‘tax’. But thinking about that could be a place to start.
*Whilst attempting to establish the average cost of student living, I came across this helpful report; it’s essential that we’re all aware (see final page) of comparative levels of chess spending.