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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.