There are few Members of the recently dissolved Parliament who arouse more animosity than the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Much of the hostility directed towards Mr Clegg stems from his broken pledge to abolish tuition fees. Yet he is fundamentally an honest and decent man who sacrificed his own short-lived near-celebrity status and the electoral prospects of his party in order to answer the country’s need for a strong government after the 2010 general election. His gravest mistake was not dishonouring that pledge, but making it in the first place as he subsequently admitted. It was a wantonly imprudent commitment. The precarious state of the country’s finances demanded that cuts to government spending be made and, in this context, keeping tuition fees at £3,000, let alone getting rid of them altogether, would have been irresponsible and unjustifiable.
It would also have been deeply immoral. Defending the trebling of tuition fees is difficult for a university student, but there is an overwhelming case for making students shoulder more of the costs themselves.
Low tuition fees (or no tuition fees whatsoever) mean that those who choose to enter into gainful employment after leaving school and who work hard for their wages subsidise those who study, many of whom pursue their studies with a lax work ethic and spend much of their time at university engaging in licentious behaviour. University campuses will always play host to drunken revelry, but it is unjust to ask hard-working taxpayers to foot the bill.
Low tuition fees mean that those whose grades were not high enough to go to university (who are disproportionately from working-class backgrounds) subsidise those who did well at school (who are disproportionately from well-heeled backgrounds). Data published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2011 showed that two-thirds of pupils at independent schools went on to study at Russell Group universities; only 24% of pupils from state schools did so.
Low tuition fees mean that taxpayers fund students not only to study traditional, academic subjects or practical ones such as engineering but also to take “soft” subjects with little academic rigour or real-world applicability. Potential students who know that taxes will cover the cost of their studies are less likely to take into account the earnings premium their degree will provide and may therefore be more inclined to spend three or four years at university studying soft subjects, only to struggle to find employment in a jobs market already saturated with graduates (according to data published in 2013 by the Office of National Statistics, 47% of recent graduates were in non-graduate jobs), rather than acquiring valuable skills and experience in their trade through an apprenticeship or employment.
Statistics prove wrong the doomsayers who predicted that higher tuition fees would entrench privilege in the higher education system and make elite universities the domain of the wealthy and well-connected. In fact, UCAS figures reveal that in 2014 more people applied to university than ever before and, notably, applications to university from pupils living in poorer parts of the country increased. Whether or not it is a good thing that more people are choosing to stay in education is altogether a different question, but what is undeniable is that tuition fees have had little impact on the choices young people make about their education.
Britain’s insatiable appetite for higher education may be fuelled by the generous loan repayment system. Graduates who earn less than ?21,000 per year repay nothing. For those who do repay their loan, interest is low: it amounts to just the rate of inflation according to the RPI; for those lucky enough to earn more, it reaches the still mercifully low rate of the RPI plus 3%. Those who fail to repay their debts in their entirety within thirty years of graduating have them written off. Therefore, the cost of university depends less on the tuition fees themselves than on lifetime earnings; for this reason, raising tuition fees is truly progressive. Poorer graduates repay less of their debt and richer graduates repay more. That is why cutting tuition fees, as the Labour Party pledges, would be an utterly regressive measure: as The Economist points out, poorer graduates would simply have less of their debt written off under the proposed regime.
Cutting tuition fees would also impose a crippling financial burden on Britain’s universities. The trebling of fees provided them with more money to invest, both in technology and in their workforce: raising their professors’ salaries attracts the brightest scholars from around the world in the short term and it makes academia a more attractive career path for tomorrow’s brains who might otherwise choose to enter more lucrative fields. Today’s students are also playing their part: in the first year following the rise in fees, the number of complaints lodged by students across England and Wales rose by 20%. Students who have a greater financial stake in their education will hold their universities to account more vociferously and ensure that standards are maintained, if not raised.
There will always be a place for caps on fees and for generous loans. A complete free-for-all could prevent poorer pupils from applying to elite universities, which plausibly would be able to charge considerably higher fees than they do currently. British universities are not as rich as their American counterparts and it is unlikely that they would be able to offer financial assistance to poor students to such a degree.
The critics of the new system do point out some serious flaws. The rise in fees was intended to create a genuinely competitive market for university courses, with the courses at elite universities and in oversubscribed subjects costing more but such a market has not materialised as few universities chose not to increase their fees all the way to ?9,000. The repayments system, by its very nature, will not satisfy everyone. The same principle of redistribution which makes it so admirably progressive could also provoke a sense of resentment among high earners who battled with difficult, intensive courses only to find that they now have to bear the full cost of their university education themselves.
The shortcomings of the rise in tuition fees pale into insignificance in the face of the overwhelming moral argument against burdening the wider population with the costs that really ought to be borne by students themselves. The rise in tuition fees was not only a constraint imposed on Mr Clegg by the country’s fiscal quagmire; it was also a welcome rectification of an unjust and regressive system. For that reason, it is to be hoped that Mr Clegg’s broken pledge will be looked upon more kindly by posterity than it is by students today.