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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.