Investment in education is key to reducing the deficit

Spending on higher education yields a long-term economic benefit for Britain.

One of the strangest claims in the current debate on education is that raising student fees will enable British universities to compete internationally. If we take just the "elite" universities, this is already happening – four out of the world's top 20 universities are British.

As ever, the devil is in the detail. If you sift closely through the Browne review, you will see he recommends that no extra resources be made available for higher education, the proposed increase in fees being designed to compensate for the withdrawal of funds from central government.

If the government follows Browne's advice, the chronic underfunding of higher education will deepen and Britain will fall further behind our economic competitors. In the space of eight years, the UK has gone from having the third-highest graduation rate among industrialised countries to languishing in 15th place, according to the latest OECD survey.

This irrational approach mirrors the economic debate, which has become dominated by the Budget deficit. However, the deficit is a symptom of the economic crisis, not its cause. And cutting spending will depress activity further, which will depress tax revenues and lead to deficit widening.

Education can and must be allowed to play a leading role in any revival. However, for that to happen, the government needs to follow the advice of the OECD, which recently recommended increasing investment in higher education to create jobs and raise tax revenues.

Annual spending on higher education in Britain is £23bn, for which the Treasury gets back an estimated return of £60bn. This arises from various sources, including jobs, exports, innovation, royalties and so on. There is also a long-term economic benefit, which is slightly harder to measure, that comes from a more highly educated and productive population.

That £60bn is a return on investment and highlights the madness of cutting spending on higher education. Spending cuts will lose jobs, exports and innovation.

The cuts are all made in the name of being fiscally responsible, getting the deficit under control and not living beyond our means – the economic saws of Thatcherism. Yet not only will the economy suffer as a result of education cuts, but government finances will deteriorate as result.

This arises from two effects. First, taxes will fall as a result of a weaker economy. Second, spending will end up higher as the government is forced to shell out millions in welfare payments to those denied places in education and made redundant from university jobs, including teachers and clerical, cleaning and catering staff.

If we look closely, the government's economics simply do not add up. A £1bn cut in spending on higher education leads to £2.6bn in decreased activity. This decrease in activity leads to both lower tax revenues and higher government spending, as mentioned above.

The same process also operates in reverse – an increase of investment in higher education will produce a positive net return to government finances through increased activity and the higher tax revenues, as well as the lower welfare payments that flow from it. Every £1bn increase in investment in this sector would produce a positive return to government finances, which could be used either to reduce the Budget deficit or to fund further much-needed investment, for even greater return.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union and Michael Burke is a former senior international economist for Citibank London.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.