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?

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

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Leadership contests can be a gory affair – so I was glad to provide some comic relief for Labour

My week, from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Brexit satire boom and the return of the Pink Bus.

I have a lot to thank the New Statesman diary for. My rather tragic musings in this column about life as a former special adviser, going from hero to zero and watching Daily Politics in my pants, seemed to provoke great amusement. So much so, that I decided to write a show about the whole thing: my time in the Labour Party, where it all went wrong, and wondering how a hardcore feminist ended up touring the country in a bonkers pink bus. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my stand-up comedy show, Tales from the Pink Bus.

I was nervous about performing at the ­Edinburgh Fringe – it was more than ten years since I’d been there as a stand-up. You’re competing against household names and the crowds are very discerning. I opened my set by admitting that I hadn’t done any comedy for a long time, but I’d been advising the Labour Party for the past decade. For some reason, that got a massive laugh.

Memory deficit

I was also anxious about how I would remember my material for the whole show. Fifty minutes is a long time without notes. I’m haunted by the memory of my old boss Ed Miliband, forgetting a section of his final party conference speech after trying to do the whole thing from memory. The bit he missed out was on the deficit. I didn’t want people to miss my deficit material. I’m not going to lie – there’s a lot of it. I’m trying to cut it down but it’s been a struggle. Who knew. 

Thankfully, all my shows went really well, largely thanks to the brilliant team at Funny Women and the Gilded Balloon who made it all happen. I had lovely audiences and decent reviews, and sold out every night like the big fat Red Tory/New Labour Blairite that I am. (I’m here all week.)

Therapy party

A lot of friends and family came to support me. I was so paranoid about no one coming that I made all my family buy tickets, including my cousin, who came all the way from India. Speaking of family, it was also great to get support from so many Scottish Labour folk. Kezia Dugdale, Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran, Ian Murray, Dame Joan Ruddock, plus loads of party staffers, were all there to cheer me on. It was like a Labour safe space.

I was worried that it would all be a wee bit too close to the bone, but as one of them said to me afterwards in the bar: “Christ . . . it was a relief to laugh about things instead of crying. You’ve just saved us a fortune on group therapy.”

Stand-up fight

It wasn’t all good times, though. I watched the Labour leadership hustings on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. It occurred to me that any comedian performing in Edinburgh would feel great empathy for Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. There are endless gigs, hard-to-please crowds, brutal reviews, you miss your loved ones back home – and by this point even they are bored by their own material.

The hustings continue to be a gory and vulgar display of a party self-harming. Each side is taking lumps out of the other, with very little discussion about policies or making things happen. Corbyn showed once again that he’s still hugely popular with the members. Smith showed he’s a strong performer who cares about how we can win again – but power doesn’t seem to matter to us any more. I jump in a cab and ask the driver what he makes of it all. He tells me he really likes that Corbyn chap because he doesn’t live in a fancy house, doesn’t claim any expenses and takes public transport. “Will you vote for him?” I ask. “Dinnae be daft, love,” comes the reply.

Sharp takes on our times

Politics was rife at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Everyone was talking Brexit. I chaired a panel on satire and the message was clear. The nation wants to talk about politics, but not in the arid way that we see every day on the news. The audience was crying out for sharp political satire to help us make sense of things and hold politicians to account in a ruthless, truthful way. A group of American students told us their generation was energised and educated by political satire such as The Daily Show. In these tumultuous times, there’s only one thing for it – bring back Spitting Image. I also appeared on another panel on satire with Rory Bremner and Ricky Gervais for Radio 4’s Front Row. I can see David Brent’s next adventure already: running for parliament.

Syrian voices

One of the most critically acclaimed pieces of theatre at the festival this year is ­Angel, written by Henry Naylor. It’s a nail-biting story set in Syria, about a young girl who ends up becoming a Kurdish freedom fighter and killing a hundred Isis men: when a woman kills them they don’t get to paradise and get the virgins.

The lead performance by Filipa Bragança is stunning and you leave feeling floored, as if you’ve watched a cinematic epic rather than one woman amid the bones of a sparse set on stage. It’s a harrowing reminder of the war in Syria and how we have forgotten about it. Angel should be performed in parliament and every MP should see it. It makes our politics seem very small.

No exit from politics

I finally get a holiday and arrive in Rhodes. I need solitude, and most of all a break from politics. I’ve done my time. After a day of relaxing and trying not to look at Twitter, I start to feel the tension ebb away. I’m at the secluded restaurant and suddenly all I hear is: “All right, mate? Fancy seeing you here!”

I turn around and there are Roy and Alicia Kennedy – the Posh and Becks of Labour. Roy is a key Lords frontbencher and Alicia is Tom Watson’s chief of staff. As I waddled off after the breakfast buffet this morning, I  heard them call, “Remember to vote, Ayesha – ballots have dropped.”

No rest for the wicked. 

“Tales from the Pink Bus” is in London on 31 August. For tickets or further information, visit: funnywomen.com 

Ayesha Hazarika is a former special adviser to Harriet Harman

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser