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.