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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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.