Slashing or abolishing tuition fees would do nothing to tackle inequality
Young people care more than any other generation about economic inequality. A 2017 survey found that well over half of people aged between 18 and 35 in Europe believe inequality in income and wealth distribution is the most serious issue in their country today. A poll of students in England earlier this year found that 65% believe the government should cover more of the cost of their undergraduate education (i.e. tuition fees should be cut), with 22% believing students should not have to pay for their education at all. These two things do not fit together. Slashing or abolishing tuition fees in this way would do nothing whatsoever to help address inequality. In fact, it would only serve to exacerbate the problem.
Tuition fees were first introduced in 1998 by Tony Blair’s government, with an initial cap of £1,000 per year. In 2004, the cap rose to £3,000 per year. The Browne Report into the education system, published in 2010, recommended that the cap be lifted altogether; the government responded by raising it to £9,000. Throughout this period, the number of students attending university has consistently increased. This year, the proportion of 18-year-olds in England being accepted to higher education institutions through UCAS hit a record high of 27.9%, with a record 16.1% of people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds gaining offers.
Tuition fees have been rising continually since their introduction two decades ago. They rose yet again to £9,250 last year. Yet, inequality in education has been consistently decreasing. There are more working-class students than ever before, and it is easier than it ever has been for the very poorest to attend university. This is because the current tuition fee model is expertly designed to give the most disadvantaged students the leg-up they need, meaning that cutting or abolishing those fees would help middle- and upper-class students most, thereby worsening economic inequality, not solving it.
Nonetheless, cutting tuition fees has once again risen to the fore in British politics, with the Augar review reportedly mooting recommending fees be cut to a maximum of £6,500. This would fundamentally undermine the efforts the current system facilitates to encourage social mobility, not to mention the consequences for universities. Student loan repayment is not debt, as it is so often called. Because of the way the repayment structure works, it is much more like a graduate tax, which makes it ideal for the lowest-earning graduates.
Firstly, graduates do not start repayments at all until they are earning at least £25,000 per year. Student loan repayment does not consist of the evil Tory government squeezing low earners for cash as soon as they step out of university, nor are students drowning in debt as soon as they graduate. They do not pay back a penny until they are earning more than enough to sustain themselves. Even when graduates reach the threshold, they then only pay back 9 per cent of their salary; if you’re earning £25,000, that is £2,250, putting your earnings at £22,750, which is hardly abject poverty.
The system is remarkably accommodating. If your earnings drop below £25,000 again, your repayments stop immediately. If thirty years pass and the loan has not been paid off in full, any remaining debt is wiped. For that reason, the only graduates who actually pay for their higher education in full are the ones who earn relatively high salaries; those who earn less only pay back whatever their earnings permit. So, slashing or abolishing tuition fees would help those high earners much more than the poorest graduates, which is directly counter-intuitive to the cause for economic equality and social mobility.
The other key factor, of course, is that if students are no longer paying for their education, the money has to come from the public sector. That means higher taxes; in other words, the wider public (including the poorer classes) are paying for students’ education, especially the richest students, who would have had no problem paying off their loan themselves under the current system.
The efficiency and effectiveness of the current tuition fees system means that the British education sector is one of the best in the world. UK institutions continue to lead the way in terms of research and teaching standards. Meanwhile, equality of opportunity is on the rise; record numbers of students from the poorest backgrounds are entering top universities, not to mention the countless grants, bursaries and scholarships they are able to offer. A significant reduction in tuition fees would serve only to help the richest graduates, hinder the quality of education our universities are able to deliver and place a cataclysmic and entirely unnecessary new burden on the taxpayer.
Jason Reed is a freelance writer and student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.