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Laurie Penny: We need a retroactive graduate tax

Vince Cable’s plans are bold and progressive, but could go further to reduce inequality.

This morning, Vince Cable signposted his plans for a change in university funding, whereby graduates might find themselves repaying the cost of their degrees in the form of a tax based on earnings, as opposed to the current student loans system, which discriminates in favour of those who go on to more profitable careers. Cable said he would ask the former BP boss Lord Browne, who is leading an independent review into university fees and funding, to examine "the feasibility of variable graduate contributions".

This is a bold and progressive idea. But why not be a little more bold and a little more progressive, and apply the graduate tax to all graduates, not just current and prospective students? If tax can be applied retroactively, why not levy a fee from all working-age graduates, including those aged 30 and above who have used the benefits of free higher education to carve out high-paying careers for themselves?

Cable has a track record for sound ideas about higher education, including his observation that too many graduates are now going into jobs that were previously the province of non-graduates. This has implications for his cited figure of £100,000 as the average difference between the earnings of graduates and comparable non-graduates net of tax. The graduate earnings premium peaked in the 1980s; today, a university degree is a mandatory requirement for most lower- and middle-management jobs, rather than an optional educational extra to boost one's earnings.

Cable previously told the BBC that "if you're a schoolteacher or a youth worker you pay the same amount as if you were a surgeon or a highly paid commercial lawyer. I think most people would think that's unfair." Surely it's rather less fair to expect those over 30 to pay nothing at all? Surely it's not beyond the pale to ask those who enjoyed British higher education at its most lucrative and inclusive to give something back?

If Britain is to remain a world leader in research, innovation and education, our higher education system needs more money, and fast. But why should the burden of financing the necessary cash injection be placed solely upon today's young graduates, who have rather less chance of going on to high-paying careers than those who left university in the 1970s and 1980s?

The money that could be raised by taxing graduates across the board might well be enough to reduce the cost of university for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as solving the problem of higher education funding more fairly. If a variable graduate tax were truly based on earnings, there would be no reason for graduates of any age to pay more than they could reasonably manage. Parents of current students might even find themselves paying less overall, if their graduate tax liability offset the costs of contributing to higher tuition and maintenance fees for their children.

The new president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, has said that while the NUS welcomes the graduate tax proposal, any changes to funding should be genuinely fair and progressive to win students' support. The core injustice of tuition fees has always been that they imposed a burden of debt on the young which rewrote the script for young adulthood in this country. And although there are indeed more young graduates now than there were 20 years ago, most are labouring under a double load of unavoidable personal debt and high unemployment.

Meanwhile, Vince Cable, George Osborne and David Willetts, along with nearly every other policymaker currently responsible for higher education funding, were financed through their degrees by a generous grants system, left university in credit, and entered a booming job market. A universal graduate tax would be a fair way of sharing out some of the proceeds of that extraordinary generational luck.

If the deficit must be paid for, it is not unreasonable to expect it to be paid for on the basis of equal sacrifice. If the principle of retroactive taxing is being considered at the highest levels of government, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the rich be taxed as well as the poor, the old as well as the young, on the basis of the services that they have enjoyed from the state.

I'd stop short at suggesting that Cable backdate the graduate tax to 1970, of course -- that would leave older people with degrees owing, ooh, tens of thousands, almost as much as an average humanities graduate in 2010. And nobody would stand for that.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.