I’ve been reading plenty lately about the proposed graduate tax, but I’m really struggling to see how it is any different to our current system of fees. It seems, in fact, that a lot of people don’t quite realise how the fees system works, so I thought I’d outline it here, from a current student’s point of view, and then waffle on a bit about why I believe higher education should be free, as opposed to “progressive” or “fair” or whatever else people think a paid system should be.
The Guardian article I’ve linked to above contains this quote:
The government would pay fees directly to the universities instead of lending money to students to cover the cost of their studies. Students would pay the state back when they earned £15,000 or more.
This is EXACTLY what happens now. Loans to students are provided through the Student Loans Company, which pays tuition fees directly to universities. I have a tuition fee loan, but the money NEVER goes into any account of mine – the transaction takes place between the university and the SLC. The money then shows up on my SLC statements as a debt I owe the state, and I’ll start paying this money back once I earn (yep, you guessed it) £15k per annum. And these payments are taken out of my pay packet at the same time as tax and NI, so are effectively the same as a tax.
So the ‘changes’ being proposed are nothing but a rebranding of the existing system of loans and fees, which are apparently dirty words all of a sudden, because people don’t like being in debt or paying fees, but don’t mind paying tax. Or at least, I think that’s how it goes. In a word, it’s spin.
I rather like a quote I heard in an interview with Stewart Lee (watch it here about 3 minutes in), in which he’s asked about how student debt will affect young comedians. His answer is more generally applicable, though. He says:
The withdrawal of the grant and the implication of student loans necessarily limits people who want vocational careers, and produces a generation of people who feel that the only purpose of education is to earn money… It’s changed the vibe of the campus and it changes the kind of people who want to go to college… I think it was done deliberately to rid us of all these troublesome thinkers and artists, and conscientious people.
He follows it up with a little Thatcher-bashing too, which is always nice, but I think he’s hit the nail pretty squarely on the head. By making people pay for it, they have to attach a financial value to the education they are receiving, and hence are more likely to choose options which represent monetary return in the future.
In my first year of university, one of our seminar tutors asked the room of around 20 people why they were at university, and only 2 of us didn’t say we were there to “get a better job” or to “earn more money”. It’s a sad inditement on the student population, I feel. To be a student is to have the privilege, for a short time, of being an adult with little to no long-term responsibility – you’ve got the rest of your life to worry about mortgages and the school run and diocalm (why I associate that with growing up I don’t know).
Being in university is about becoming a bigger person, if not a better person. It’s about new people, it’s about making lifelong friends, and it’s about being a bit of a rebel at times. It’s a time for being idealistic, impulsive and downright childish, in the best possible way. Not all the time, obviously, but at least now and again.
But for an increasing number of students, that’s not what uni is about at all. It’s a means to an end, and that end is a high-paid job. I feel sorry for those students, because even if in ten years they’ve got the life they always dreamed of, their dreams will never have been wild enough to start with.