Are The New Tuition Fees Fair?

Some people seem to be a little bit annoyed by the government’s decision that students should pay up to £9000 a year for their degrees.

From what I’ve seen on the news, and Question Time, it seems a lot of people have a rather misconceived idea of what the changes actually mean. I think the way the media have presented the story hasn’t helped; I guess you’re going to sell more papers if you make government decisions look massively controversial. Plus you’ve got the Labour party, who are opposing every cut the government makes, but while they seem to acknowledge that the way universities are funded needs fixing (it was them that commissioned the Browne report in the first place), they can’t really agree among themselves on a viable alternative.

So I can understand why people are under the impression that the new system is unfair, but I hope that people will try to read the following with an open mind as I try to show you why the new system is, as crazy as this may sound, fairer than the old one.

I was going to try and explain it all in my own words, but then realised the Prime Minister already covered most of what I was going to say in this speech. I’m thinking the people who are most passionately against the new fees are probably inclined to automatically dislike everything in that speech just because it was David Cameron that delivered it, but please give him a chance. I think it’s worth a read, and if you’re willing to listen, I think you’ll see that they are being fair. Otherwise, I think the following still makes sense even if you don’t bother with the link:

I’d like to emphasise that people from poor backgrounds who go to university will be better off under the new system, while the people who don’t go, and end up doing low-paid jobs their whole lives instead, won’t have to pay for those that do.

The people who will take a hit under the new system are those who aren’t poor enough to receive grants, but aren’t rich enough to pay the fees up front to avoid the interest on their loan. People like me would have to pay our own way, rather than take money off non-graduates, and (although it’s easy for me to say this now that I’ve already got my degree) I think that’s fair.

I’ve heard two common arguments against this.

Firstly, it is claimed that everyone, including minimum wage-earners, benefits from university graduates working in our country, so everyone should contribute to the cost of educating them.

Secondly, it is pointed out that people received free university tuition in the past.

I think these would both have been valid arguments/points back when very few people went to university. When not many people went to university, it didn’t cost the government very much to pay for them. Plus, the degrees the students received were more valuable because they were rare, and those that possessed those degrees would have contributed significantly to a workforce that consisted mostly of relatively uneducated people.

Now, there are lots more people going to university, so if the government were still to pay for them, it would cost a lot more. Also, since so many people have degrees, graduates are much less in demand in the workplace, so having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean you’re contributing much to the country (right now my Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering is being put to good use as I serve coffee and do the washing up in a restaurant).

So firstly, I’d say that sending all these people to university no longer seems all that useful to non-graduates. There are some cases where there is still a clear benefit to everyone, e.g. training doctors, and if their salaries are not enough reward, then perhaps their tuition should still be paid for by the taxpayer. In most cases though, I think the benefit that non-graduates get from someone else doing a degree is negligible.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that no-one’s education was ever free. £9000 a year is the price UK universities will be charging for degrees. The only question is who pays that cost? Do the people who receive the degree pay? Or should everyone share the cost, including those who’ve never dreamed of going to university and are working in a factory on minimum wage? Take into account that the average increase in earnings over a lifetime as a result of having a degree is over £100,000. If you still think you can justify taking money off of the lowest-earning taxpayers to pay for your degree for you, then I guess you’re entitled to your opinion, but I think that’s actually pretty disgusting. You’re basically doing a Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to reduce the debts of the future high-earners.

I also dislike the way society is saying you need a degree to get a decent job. To me, that seems to send a message to the people working in factories etc., that their jobs are pretty worthless. People shouldn’t be made to feel inferior because they don’t earn as much. Suggesting that these people benefit from having university graduates in the country, and should therefore help pay to create them, encourages the idea that they themselves are less valuable to the country. Graduates need people to do these low-paid jobs, and they should show their appreciation to the people willing to do them, not charge them for the privilege of having these people who’ve been to university and got important, highly-paid jobs, look down on them.

That said, I’m not against education. The government should do all it can to make sure the same opportunities are available to anyone who wants to go to university, and I think the Lib-Con system, when properly understood, does a better job of providing those opportunities to anyone than the previous system did.

So finally, if you’re put off going to university by the increase in fees, I’d like to firstly point out that someone has to pay for your tuition (lecturers don’t normally work for free!), and it might as well be you (it’s all very well insisting the government pays for you, but the government has no money of its own, it’s only using the money you give them through taxes). Secondly, you’re not being asked to pay a penny until you’ve finished and are earning over £21k a year, and even then, say  you were earning £23k a year, you would only pay back £15 a month. In practice, it’s very similar to paying for tuition using taxes, but only the people who go to uni will pay. Is that really worth smashing windows over?