In this article, Stewart Harper argues why he believes 'fees' should not be lowered from £9,000 and instead be referred to as a graduate tax.
I consider the reforms of higher education funding, introduced by the Coalition government, as one of the best – and most conservative – achievements of the last eight years. As that sector prepares to receive the outcomes of the latest review on funding, my argument is that we need to build on this, not start again.
Tony Blair’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ may have sounded great, but the reality – at least for Higher Education – certainly didn’t keep up with rhetoric. The idea that 50% of students would go to university was a false one – reformed by the Coalition so that 100% of students who can benefit from Higher Education can now study, without the fee rate being a determining factor.
When fees were raised to £9,000 in 2012, the media just focused on that headline – three times more than the previous headline rate, they said. It ignored, and we allowed it to ignore, the huge reforms that lay beneath. This ‘fee’ is only repaid when students earn £25,000, is written off after 30 years, and is repaid at a marginal rate of 9% once earning above the threshold. It’s not a fee at all – it’s a graduate tax. We conservatives are scared of the word ‘tax’, but that’s what it is – and cutting repayments, reducing thresholds, or otherwise playing with the system, stands only to benefit the higher paid – reducing the contribution that lawyers and doctors make to their education.
Higher education, in fact all education, benefits society as much as the individual. It leads to better-paid jobs, increasing productivity, improving growth, and leading to higher tax revenues. Plus, it gives us graduates able to perform jobs that need those skills. I certainly wouldn’t want to see an untrained doctor in the pursuit of ‘fairness’. So it is right that general taxation meets a good proportion of the cost of higher education – and that’s what this current system does. The exact proportion isn’t clear, because it will take 30 years of data to be sure, but between a third or a half of student loans (that are paid to the universities directly to provide the fee income) won’t be paid back by the graduates. And that’s not a bad thing – that’s the taxpayer contribution.
Corbyn may have got headlines when he promised to cut tuition fees to zero, but that would have destroyed everything that has been achieved, and would have reversed the positive drive in participation. Application rates of 18 year olds England for higher education are at their highest rates ever, according to UCAS, and whilst the gap is still far too high the application rate from 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas in England is at the highest level recorded.
The current arrangements guarantee income for our world-class higher education system, ranked among the best in the world, provides a ‘no-win-no-fee’ approach for students (so that if they don’t earn more than they would otherwise have done, they don’t repay) and splits the cost between taxpayers (for all the reasons I have outlined) and the graduate. But let’s change the name – this is an income contingent contribution, not a fee!
So, when the Augur review reports in the New Year, let’s not go ‘Corbyn lite’ and cut fees to £6,500, which would benefit only the best paid graduates. Let’s be brave, be conservative, and recognise the value of world class skills and education. Retain the system as it is now, but please let’s change the name!
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author.
Stewart Harper is a Conservative Party member, activist, and on the Party's list of Parliamentary Candidates. He has worked in the Higher Education sector for the past seventeen years, but has interests outside in the wider education and public sectors, including non-executive appointments with a number of bodies.