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Abolish the Abolishment!

Eliminating university tuition fees would not solve the problem of rising student debt

While the Conservative Party had a disappointing election result in June, Labour did not enjoy any real success either. Both fell short of an overall majority, although Labour did manage to gain 30 seats while the Tories lost 13. Theresa May’s hopes of a ‘thumping majority’ in the House of Commons were completely eradicated. But the Conservatives, in the end, were still in the best position to form a confidence-and-supply government with the DUP, a right-wing party from Northern Ireland.

Even so, in the aftermath of one of the most iconic and surprising elections in British history, it appeared that plenty of young voters flocked to Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. Data from YouGov showed that Labour attained 64% of the votes of full-time students. According to The Economist, there was a 46% swing to Labour among under-25s.

It has become apparent that the party and its leader were successful in delivering an election campaign asseverating hope and change which seemed to resonate well with younger portions of the electorate. Among the plenty of seemingly attractive and costly policies proposed by Labour, one proposal caught the ear of many of those young voters, particularly students; the promise to abolish university tuition fees.

At first glance, this promise would seem to be in the best interest of youngsters. Students deal with over £50,000 worth of debt on average after graduation, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This number is only set to increase as many institutions seek to raise tuition fees to £9,250. It is possible that they could rise further to £9,500 in 2018 although this has not been confirmed by the government.

But abolishing tuition fees would not be a suitable solution to mitigating this student debt. Tuition fees are needed for UK universities to stay competitive as the fees are critical to providing high-quality education to those who want it. It was the Labour Party in fact who first introduced tuition fees back in the 1990s upon this very realisation.

There are important reasons as to why tuition fees have risen so much, resulting in the increasing debt being taken on by students. Firstly, university education has become more of a necessity as opposed to an option which only a relatively small number used to take. In 1992 there were 984,000 people between the age of 18 and 24 in full-time education, according to the Office for National Statistics. In 2016, that number rose to 1.87 million. It would appear that a university degree has become essential in attaining the higher-paying jobs, and the figures do suggest that this is the case. Analysis from The Complete University Guide shows that those graduating with an Economics degree, for example, earn around £10,000 more than their non-graduate counterparts.

As demand rises for a service, so does its price. University education is no exception. But part of the problem with the high demand for university education and the steep price it comes with is that too often people look at it as an absolute necessity as opposed to a strategic investment. Young people should only attend university to attain qualifications which they will actually need for their desired professions or careers. Those who go to drink away three years of their life, or pick any course because they feel they have to, are wasting their time and money.

Another reason why fees are so high is that universities will always seek to charge the maximum price for its courses. In 2015 the Reddin Survey of Tuition Fees showed that almost all universities had planned to charge £9,000 a year in the 2015–16 academic year. Offering a lower price may suggest that the course is of a lower quality, and thus could attract fewer students and less money. Charging a higher price suggests the opposite, but only in theory.

But to suggest that any of this warrants the abolishment of fees is farcical. In reality, the Conservative Party had little choice when raising the tuition fee cap 2012 and again in 2016. To suggest that it is possible to rid students of the “debt burden”, in the words of Mr Corbyn, by making the government foot the bill is to suggest a rather ineffective solution. It would burden the State with even more spending obligations which would have to be paid for either through taxation or higher borrowing. Either way, students will have to pay in some way at some point in time.

In actual fact, the introduction of tuition fees has allowed universities to take on more students. This includes those from poorer backgrounds, with now 30% of youngsters from poor parts of the country going to university as opposed to just 10%. This number has continued to grow even after the rising of fees in 2012 since lenient repayment terms on loans makes it easier for poorer students to attend university.

Thus, abolishing tuition fees should not be in consideration. Instead, what should be addressed is whether raising the fee cap actually helps universities to raise standards and provide high-quality courses for its students. There is some evidence to suggest that the increases in fees may encourage wasteful spending; expenditure on construction among universities was nearly £2.5 billion on in 2013, which was 43% higher than in 2012, according to The Economist.

It may be an idea to make it more difficult for universities to attain permission to raise fees. The fact that the vast majority of institutions are able to raise fees perhaps suggests that the current standards are too low. Making universities adhere to even higher teaching standards before being able to raise funds would benefit both students and the universities themselves. Students would be helped because institutions may work harder to provide higher quality courses and teaching methods and spend in a way which would be most useful for its students. This would then benefit the universities as those institutions which are permitted to charge the highest fee levels would be able to more effectively represent their quality and prestige, attracting more students and generating more revenue.

In addition to this, a more long-term solution could be a greater embracement of online courses. It would be much less costly for institutions to provide its courses through online platforms, which would, in turn, make it cheaper for students to access them. Also, putting courses online would reach far more students across the country, allowing more people to attain degrees if they need them. The Open University could be somewhat of a model for this, but it may be some time before employers and universities alike are willing to take online degrees seriously enough to allow this to become widespread. But it is nevertheless a far more realistic option than abolishing fees and should not be ignored.