A graduate tax is the fairest solution

As a sixth-former, I think a graduate tax would increase social mobility and maintain world-class hi

When hundreds of thousands of students take out their iPod headphones and tear themselves away from Call of Duty to rally in the streets, you know the government has done something seriously wrong. After all the pre-election talk of a fairer education system, why does the coalition think that increasing tuition fees and slashing the teaching budget by 80 per cent will achieve this?

Make no mistake, the steep rise in fees will stop huge numbers of bright, but less affluent students from applying to university. Coupled with higher interest rates on these fees, it creates a daunting prospect. As a sixth-form pupil, I can confirm that there is a growing attitude within our year group at school that university is becoming an unaffordable option. This is not only completely unfair, but crucially, it also reduces Britain's ability to produce a high-quality workforce. Surely the government cannot ignore the long-term problems of restricting university access only to those who can afford it? They wouldn't be making such important policies while only thinking ahead as far as the next election, would they?

It's fine to complain – and even to take to the streets in protest – but that is pointless unless solutions can be found. One alternative being explored is the introduction of a graduate tax, a policy endorsed by the Labour Party and the National Union of Students. It seems a good solution – allowing the abolition of upfront fees, replaced by the introduction of a heavier income tax on graduates (an additional 0.3-2.5 per cent) based on the type and location of the course. This tax would last for roughly 20 years and would be paid only if the graduate was employed and earning in excess of £15,000 a year.

This would be fairer than the current system, because lower-income graduates would bear less of a burden than if they paid a fixed price for fees. This in turn would create an incentive for students from a low-income background to strive for higher education, increasing social mobility. Of course, higher-income graduates might end up paying more under the system – but then, they can afford to.

The graduate tax also prevents huge debts in interest payments accumulating, making it an efficient way of funding higher education. And it would prevent the creation of a market in fees, which would force students to choose their university based on price. Admittedly, graduate tax would fall hardest on those whose education costs were high and salaries were low – this would include those in vital jobs such as teaching, social work and nursing. But this can be counteracted by reducing the rate of graduate tax in these sectors of employment. After all, such a tax would raise more revenue in the long run than the proposed fees system.

But would a graduate tax work in reality? When Vince Cable first hinted at the possibility, he described it as a "variable graduate contribution tied to earnings", cunningly avoiding the lead balloon that is the word "tax". It shows how clever wording and public image have become more important than policy.

Inevitably, there are criticisms of the graduate tax. Russell Group universities are opposed because they fear they would only get the same level of funding from the tax as less elite institutions. Yet this doesn't have to be the case – funding could be linked to how much tax revenue is gained from that university's graduates. For example, if Oxford students paid 10 per cent of the national total of graduate of tax that year, then Oxford would receive the same 10 per cent as their funding.

Admittedly the setting up of a trust fund to collect graduate tax, and funding the universities during the lag time between the introduction of a graduate tax and when its full benefits are reaped, would be a sizeable task – but a worthwhile one in the long run.

Call me an idealist, but an efficient graduate tax could completely remove the burden of higher education from the general taxpayer. Even so, a combination of graduate tax and government funding derived from general taxation should be the answer to funding a world-class standard of higher education. I still think that the taxpayer should contribute to higher education because of the benefits to Britain of having highly educated workers. After all, the next generation of workers will be the ones driving the economy – while those who have enjoyed heavily subsidised higher education in past decades sit back and draw their pensions.

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The Brexit effect: The fall in EU migration spells trouble for the UK

The 84,000 fall in net migration to 248,000 will harm an economy that is dependent on immigration.

The UK may not have left the EU yet but Europeans are already leaving it. New figures from the ONS show that 117,000 EU citizens emigrated in 2016 (up 31,000 from 2015) - the highest level for six years. The exodus was most marked among eastern Europeans, with a fall in immigration from the EU8 countries to 48,000 (down 25,000) and a rise in emigration to 43,000 (up 16,000).

As a result, net migration has fallen to 248,000 (down 84,000), the lowest level since 2014. That's still nearly more than double the Conservatives' target of "tens of thousands a year" (reaffirmed in their election manifesto) but the trend is unmistakable. The number of international students, who Theresa May has refused to exclude from the target (despite cabinet pleas), fell by 32,000 to 136,000. And all this before the government has imposed new controls on free movement.

The causes of the UK's unattractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit (May has refused to guarantee EU citizens the right to remain) and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents. Ministers may publicly welcome the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Brexit has in fact forced ministers to increasingly acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Britain needs immigrants. Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. Brexit secretary David Davis, for instance, recently conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (a level not seen since 1997), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

Alongside the new immigration figures, GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017 was revised down to 0.2 per cent - the weakest performance since Q4 2012. In recent history, there has only been one reliable means of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. Should the UK suffer the downturn that historic trends predict, it will need immigrants more than ever. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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