Should university tuition be free?

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Photo by Andrew Moss

Yes – Bryony Seager

Earlier this year the government revised down its estimates for how much money lent in the form of tuition fees would ever be raked back. It was estimated when this revision was made public that the tripling of university fees back in 2012 has added nothing to the government’s coffers, and will in fact leave them with losses for the next 30 to 40 years where repayments are concerned if the economy keeps in the same pattern as it is currently showing. Graduates have to earn £21,000 before paying back their tuition fees and as the situation stands at the moment, 45% of graduates will not earn enough in their lifetimes to repay their tuition fees. It has been calculated that if this figure reaches 48.6%, the government will be making a significant loss compared to before the tuition fee hike.

The idea behind the initial fee rises was that the government could cut payments to universities and these institutions would make up the difference by charging more fees, which the government would pay until students could pay it back. Make sense? Lots of people thought it was an odd way around the issue as well; pay less to supposedly get more back. As you can see from the statistics above, this hasn’t exactly worked out the way the government planned. They are losing 45p in every £1 they lend out and this isn’t expected to change for another 30 to 40 years. By then the economy is likely to be drastically different, so it’s difficult to discuss what the impact might be by then.

Outside of the UK, Germany has just made tuition free for all, even international students, and this has catapulted the country (quite naturally) into a position of extreme popularity amongst prospective international students. Some may ask where the difference in fees is going to come from: where is the extra money going to be found? Back in the UK the Conservatives argued that Labour’s mooted plans for lowering tuition fees to £6000 would add more to the deficit and make the economy unstable once again. The Labour government replied that the difference could be made up by reversing a cut in corporation tax for banks that the Conservative party has implemented. Corporation tax has always been a sticky issue when linked with tuition fees because it has been estimated that if corporate giants such as Google and Starbucks paid even a fraction of the tax they owed, then the resultant money could be used to aid payments for higher education.

Aside from all the economics jargon, and heading back into more wishful thinking, tuition fees should either be lowered or scrapped altogether to make for a more level playing field. As discussed in many articles before in SCAN, going to university is expensive enough with many families being hit hard in the pocket to help pay their children’s living costs, and without the added worry of how paying back a base amount of £27,000 is going to affect them later in life. Many a prospective student has been put off going into higher education altogether because of the debt they would be clobbered with when they left.

Some also argued that by raising the tuition fees it would discourage those who perhaps shouldn’t be at university, and who should maybe consider apprenticeships or learning on the job, from going into higher education. Basing this idea on monetary standards is frankly quite repulsive; university isn’t for everyone, but on no account should the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ pile be sorted due to wealth. It should be divided on merit and a real understanding of what university might mean for them and their job prospects. With tuition fees the way they are currently, one of the biggest topics of conversation when someone is thinking about going to university is how they are going to afford it, which in terms of furthering their intellectual capacity and job prospects (what university should really be about), should be much further down the conversational scale.

No – Daniel Snape

I’m fairly certain that back in November 2010, when the coalition first seriously considered raising the cap on tuition fees, I was the only student in my entire school who was prepared to defend the idea. My reasoning was this: the government no longer had the money to subsidise everyone’s higher education, so the universities would have to find another source. If the universities couldn’t find enough money of their own, I would end up with a second-rate bachelor’s degree. Thousands of hours of political and economic study later, my opinion hasn’t changed much.

Two stories in the headlines have kick-started the tuition fees argument again. Over here, Vince Cable has warned that further austerity measures may encourage the government to set the cap on fees even higher. Meanwhile, in Germany, the last state to charge university fees has given in to brutal student protest and made tuition completely free. Students around Britain are now asking themselves: why can’t we be like the Germans? The answer, as always, is economics. You can’t pay for an elite higher education system with glamorous ideals.

A lot of romantic student activists have trouble stomaching the momentous, world-turning constraint that is money, so let me set the economic scene. Firstly, universities clearly want more funding, as 98% of UK universities charge the whole nine grand for courses. Even then, trade unions are threatening further industrial action due to university cut-backs. If we try to reduce those takings by any amount, there won’t be a music department in the country. Secondly, for the government to cover every £9,000 instalment, the higher education budget would have to grow by at least a third – and fast. To put that into perspective, the Treasury would have to find a sum of money every year roughly equal to the price of our EU membership.

That is not to say, however, that the student loans system is perfect. A lot of students in favour of lower tuition love to point out that projections for defaulting on student loans are coming dangerously close to the 48.6% mark, after which raising the cap would have cost us more than we gained. If we’re comparing this to free tuition, the rate of default would be 100%, so they can hardly complain. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about a return to the £3,290 cap, then defaulting would pose a problem. However, a broken student loans system is no excuse to take £9,000 a year from the state. A more sustainable Student Loans Company, which might charge only inflation-level interest and charge repayments for longer than 30 years, would easily cut rates of defaulting.

Similarly, with free tuition, we would lose the privilege of confronting every problem with the catchphrase: “Is this what I pay nine grand a year for?” It’s a question that has cultivated real accountability in universities over the last few years, pushing them to reconsider some of their more complacent services. If the government had to send a comfortable subsidy to Lancaster every time a student signed up, there would be no incentive to reduce teaching costs, but there would be every reason for management to ask the government for more.

A particularly grave mistake made by a lot of students is the belief that £9,000 fees are somehow unfair. Let’s be clear: no student of any socio-economic background is being ruined by the £9,000 cap. The vast, vast majority of us are not even paying for our tuition. Sure, it’s a daunting prospect having to square your student loans, but that’s a problem for graduates, not prospective graduates. Hence, under the present system, there are more students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before. If anything, free tuition would be the least egalitarian option. Unprecedented numbers of people would want to go to university and would have to be separated out by stricter academic entry standards, forcing universities to discriminate against groups that don’t perform as reliably on paper.

Clearly, running the Treasury into the ground for your own higher education isn’t as fair as many claim. But I won’t paint believers in free tuition as selfish. I must admit, if free tuition were remotely doable, it would take a great deal of self-sacrifice from us. We would become part of a four-year debt anomaly, paying for the qualifications those students who came before us while foregoing the privileges we secure for those who come after. There is nothing we can do to climb out of this financial blip now. Free tuition is a social ideal, and that’s precisely why we can’t have it.