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.

Getty Images,
Show Hide image

John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.