Is the graduate tax actually fairer?

Paying for education indefinitely is more likely to act as a deterrent to poor students.

In his first key speech on higher education, Vince Cable has outlined proposals for cutting costs in universities. The graduate tax, which Cable claims would be fairer and more sustainable, has attracted the most attention.

Under the current system, students take a loan from the government which they use to pay their tuition fees and part of their living costs. This is paid back gradually when the graduate starts earning more than £15,000.

At first glance, that sounds rather similar to the measure being proposed -- money is paid over someone's career, and the amount increases with earnings. The main difference is that the graduate tax will be infinite; in effect, it will mean that graduates are permanently paying a higher rate of income tax.

The jury is out on whether this is "progressive" or not. The main argument in its favour is that it would be linked to income, meaning that high earners will ultimately pay more and could subsidise those less well off.

Ed Balls -- a proponent of the graduate tax -- said it means that graduates will contribute to costs, "but only once they are in work and clearly based on their ability to pay".

I'm not convinced by this. It is already the case that repayments start only once you are earning, and the situation would presumably stay the same if fees were to rise further. The difference is that, currently, everyone ends up paying the same amount, whereas the idea under the new system would be for the rich to end up paying more.

There are many problems with this. While the National Union of Students has been advocating a graduate tax for the past four years, they have also pointed out that a graduate tax can fail to take into account the diminishing importance of education and the increased role of work experience in establishing a career (note: they believe that their proposed model neutralises this). Paul Cottrell of the University and College Union (UCU) argues that poor graduates could even end up paying a higher percentage of their income through a tax than through a loan system.

Two years ago, Sutton Trust research on the impact of tuition fees showed that teenagers from poorer families were forgoing a university education because they were concerned about debt.

Another argument for a graduate tax is that abolishing the upfront payment aspect would remove this deterrent. This is disingenuous. As it stands, it is assumed that you will pay back your fees at a later date. You fill in a form for a loan, and the money goes straight to the university without passing through your bank account.

While a graduate tax could be framed as the abolition of fees, I find it difficult to believe that essentially paying for your education for ever would be less of a deterrent than a fixed amount of debt. Surveys have shown students concerned that they will be paying back their student debt for a decade; surely, permanently paying more tax is worse?

I'm inclined to agree with Sally Hunt of the UCU, who has called the proposal "an exercise in rebranding". Isn't this just higher fees by a different name?

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.