Graduate tax: the devil’s in the detail

A graduate tax can be the fair, progressive and sustainable answer to HE funding. Let’s hope Vince m

While it is correct to say that the jury is still out on whether what Vince Cable means by a graduate tax will be progressive, it is clear to us at the National Union of Students (NUS) that it can, without question, be a very progressive way of funding higher education, and one that has some significant differences from the current tuition fee model.

The principle behind any graduate tax is simple -- you should be able to decide to study what you want to study, where you want to study it, without worrying about the different costs involved. You should then be able to choose to work, where you want to work, without worrying about having to pay back debts as quickly as possible. If you are subsequently able to contribute more towards your education, it is fair that you do so, while those that are not able to should not.

Under the present system, almost all students pay back the same "sticker price" (currently £3,225 a year), whereas a graduate tax would tax a percentage of their income. The system thus leaves a graduate who chooses to use their degree to become a careworker or a primary school teacher paying the same as someone who goes on to take a top job in the City.

Indeed, the current model actually leaves those who go in to more poorly paid jobs taking longer than others to repay their debts, thereby accruing interest on their debt over a longer period, and so paying more for earning less. This is fundamentally regressive -- as Vince Cable puts it, the current fixed sum acts as a higher education poll tax.

A graduate tax need not go on indefinitely; many currently suggest a cut-off point of 20-25 years. Similarly, some people argue for the introduction of a maximum total contribution, beyond which contributions could stop.

We must also not forget that this debate is not about the virtues of a graduate tax over the current system of fees, but about a graduate tax as opposed to a move towards a market in fees -- a market in which certain universities or university courses would cost considerably more than others. This would be a disaster scenario, driving those most worried about debt away from the elite institutions and presitigious course, and introducing dangerous competition into a sector which is entirely unsuitable for marketisation.

What is most important now is ensuring that, having made some positive sounds, Vince Cable now supports the introduction of a genuinely progressive and fair graduate tax model, rather than this simply being a clever rebranding exercise.

Aaron Porter is the president of the National Union of Students. He studied English literature at the University of Leicester and served as a sabbatical officer at the students' union.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.