The Controversialist: A graduate tax is not the solution to Higher Education funding

For the first time this autumn, students will be facing tuition fees of up to £9000. The reaction will either show that tuition fees are now part of the furniture, or mark a reprise in the campaigning against them.

There is one problem in this. The debate within the left, with its obedient acceptance that a fairer system for higher education funding lies in the gospel of graduate taxation, is missing completely. And because it is unlikely that the £9000 cap will hold in the long term, this debate needs to happen now.

The campaign for a graduate tax encompassed conclusions on other more controversial debates, especially on what the purpose of higher education is. Facets of this question include whether higher education should be moving towards open access, whether higher education is a right or privilege, and whether the goal should be self-enrichment or vocational success?

Open access often gets bagged alongside fairer access under the umbrella of ‘widening participation’. We can universally agree upon wanting to enable people of all socio-economic backgrounds to have equal access to higher education. How we should fund people with less of an academic track record isn’t such a straight-forward question.

Low-paid key-skilled workers are often said to have a heavy burden under the current fee system, and so a ‘progressive’ tax would be fairer to society. Conversely, the likes of Gorden Gekko are benefiting too much from a flat fee system. I would like to believe that it is an axiom on the left that many key-skilled workers are under-appreciated, and under-paid, but this argument is a very selective slice of the truth.

Many people are very happy to pay taxes for social and community workers, teachers and nurses. What many people aren’t interested in is paying for the legion of students who have delayed careers for highly expensive specialised degrees, because a student experience is ‘important’ to them. Many of them end up unemployed, having overlooked the importance of industrial placement and other opportunities to further their skill set. To be fair, it isn’t their fault; it was fundamentally a half-baked Labour policy to get 50% of young people through the university system without considering the consequences of the output and building a framework around it.

3% of graduates head abroad after finishing their studies. Will they get their education for free? What happens to those 7.2% of students 
who drop out completely? Should we fund failure? Should we have stronger eligibility tests for funded higher education?

Between 1996–1997 and 2008–2009 the UK saw a 27% increase in the number of people in full-time undergraduate education. That included an 181% increase in media students, an 86% jump in the arts and a 58% increase in history and philosophy. These correlate to the subject areas with the worst records of graduate-level employment. In the same period, students of technology and engineering went down by 8% despite these boasting one of the highest rates of graduate-level employment.

Meanwhile almost 100% of medicine graduates end up in postgraduate study or graduate-level employment. Education and veterinary subjects do well too. Perhaps prospective students entering these fields are better equipped to plan their careers even before they enroll? Or are these fields extremely competitive due to limited student places to start with?

As socialists, we look to take the path that benefits the majority of society while protecting the rights of the minority. Given our financial burdens, unless we conclude higher education is a right, the focus should be on the needs of society if it is being paid for with our taxes.

Under the current system, universities are forced to fill their student quota to get funding. The trends in which subjects receive the most student applicants influence this decision. The influence of industries is limited by what perception students have of whether there are good career opportunities available, which may not be accurate.

As an alternative, we could place the supply and demand in the hands of industry and the universities, and let them set quota of places available for degree courses. That way, we would not end up with too many film studies students, too few engineers; we would be able to highlight to school and college students clearly where industrial demand is.

Then for those who wish to study beyond the funded spaces, there should be alternative, affordable funding mechanisms such as part-time study integrated with and financed by work — as with apprenticeships, but with the same degree, not an equivalent.

Whatever the solution, the graduate tax model needs its many holes plugged before it can float. Alternatives need to be heard out and underlying questions on the purpose of higher education answered.

This article was first published in the Young Fabians print journal Anticipations (Volume 15, Issue 4— Autumn 2012)