There are two pressures that define the debate over tuition fees: the first is that the decision to attend university is ultimately a private choice that tends to benefit the individual student substantially; the second is that an educated and qualified populace is in the public interest.
The salient success of the current tuition fee system is that it takes into account the individual’s gain from university in a way that the state-funded alternative proposed by Labour does not. It is hardly right that a population with a median yearly income of about £27,000 pays for the education of a population which on average earns £9,000 more per year – as was the case before the fee system was introduced.
Yet, while it may indeed be fairer for students to pay for their own education, the prospect of graduating with a bill for tens of thousands of pounds is admittedly intimidating. However, once we crunch the numbers it becomes clear that there is not too much to be worried about. Brace for some quick maths.
Let’s take the case of an average graduate, assuming that they received a £9,000 tuition fee loan and a £8,200 maintenance loan which is the maximum sum outside of London. The average graduate starting salary is around £20,000, which is projected to be £36,000 after thirty years when the remainder of the unpaid fees is written off. Assuming that the threshold at which one starts paying back the loan rises with inflation and the average wage, as it is promised to do, this graduate will have paid back £7,000 over 30 years. To put this figure in perspective, the government estimates that UK graduates will on average earn between £170,000 and £250,000 more over their lifetimes than non-graduates. Attending university is still easily worth the cost under the tuition fees system.
But the real virtue of the loans system is flexibility. Let’s take the case of a graduate on a salary of £27,000 thirty years after graduating – projected to be the national median wage by then. This graduate will have paid back nothing by the time their loan is written off. In other words, if your degree doesn’t end up benefitting you financially compared to the average non-graduate, you won’t pay for it. We are essentially receiving a no win, no fee education. So, the cost of university education is essentially distributed across the graduate population, with those who financially benefit the most from their degree paying the most back into the system. It is an arrangement that works for both students and the general population; attending university remains very profitable for students, and the taxpayer saves £6.5 billion a year, according to IFS estimates, which can be invested in other areas of importance.
There have been fears that the student loan system may discourage potential students, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds. If this hypothesis is true, the tuition fees system cannot be said to satisfy the second pressure – reduced access to university would not be in the public interest, as ultimately the country stands to gain from an educated workforce.
To properly assess the impact of tuition fees on access to university, UCAS recommends looking at applications to university from English school leavers, rather than the overall number of applications. This is because the total number of applications to university is more susceptible to influences outside of education policy; UCAS cites higher rates of employment reducing the number of mature applicants as one example of this. The focus on English applicants is due to the fact that the tuition fee system only applies fully in England.
By this metric, the tuition fees system seems to have had little visible impact on rates of application to university. Apart from a blip in 2012, every year since the introduction of fees we have seen an increase in the rate of applications from English school leavers compared to before the introduction of fees. The outlook has been good for applicants from less fortunate backgrounds as well: 18 year-olds living in disadvantaged areas of England are 85% more likely to apply to university in 2017 than in 2007 – a higher increase than in every other constituent country of the UK. Equality of opportunity has also increased substantially over the same period: in 2007 applicants from the wealthiest areas of the country were 3.6 times more likely to apply to university than those from the poorest areas – this year the ratio has fallen to 2.3. By this metric, over the last 10 years, England has gone from being the second least equal of the UK’s constituent countries to the most equal.
The data could not be clearer. Over the last decade, in spite of rising tuition fees, school leavers, both rich and poor, are more likely to apply for university, and the inequality gap, while still present, has narrowed. These are not small, dubious improvements – these are massive changes. Given these successes, fears that tuition fees could hinder access to higher education seem unfounded.
The student loan system has been a broadly successful answer to the question of higher education funding. It has redistributed the burden of university funding away from the taxpayer and toward wealthier graduates while making sure that a university education continues to be excellent value for students. Furthermore, it has done so while we have seen more poorer students go to university than ever before. This is not to say that the system as a whole is perfect; government policy has been alarmingly short-sighted in some areas, such as the scrapping of incentives for nursing students.
The principles of the system, however, are meritocratic. What is the alternative that Jeremy Corbyn is proposing? Scotland. The dangers of the system there are evident and chilling.
A study into student funding across the UK for the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion, and the Economic and Social Research Council in 2014, found that while free university tuition coupled with cuts in grants to lower-income students mean middle-class families in Scotland are £20 million a year better off, the overall costs to poorer students have gone up by at least £32 million annually.
Their system – the Labour Party’s proposal – would see some of the poorest people in our society who choose not to go to university paying for the tuition of the richest people in our society. I quote the lead researcher, Lucy Hunter-Blackburn: “Free tuition in Scotland is the perfect middle-class, feel-good policy. It’s superficially universal, but in fact, it benefits the better-off most, and is funded by pushing the poorest students further and further into debt.”
The Conservative Party must be the party of equality of opportunity. The party that gives everyone a fair shot. The party that stands up for those who want to rise from the bottom to the top – those who don’t want to settle for what their parents had before them; those who have aspirations for something more in life. From the evidence, we know that abolishing tuition fees would entrench privilege and shut off those without wealth – everything we stand against. This is a debate we cannot afford to lose.
Sam Sherwood is President of UCL Conservative Society.