The best things in life are fees

Posted: 3rd March 2012 by Get No Happy in Angry Rants, News of the day, Politics

Having received yet more diktats about how the University demands we “improve the Undergraduate experience in light of the new 9k environment” I thought it best I cover this little gem of a topic. It was this or rave to myself in darkened room. Everything is being geared towards showing the Undergrads what their buying for £9,000 at the expense of staff, the postgraduate taught and research students, and (in my opinion) the ethos of higher education in general. The attitude new students already have is that they are here to be taught and not to learn; One student actually complained they had to go to the library, and this will only get worse now they believe their relationship to the university is that of customer to service rather than master to apprentice

Fair enough you may say, they are paying a lot of money.  I had to (about £1,400), and since then  students have been handing over nearly £4,000 in what I image to be a macabre ceremony involving an axe-man and a student waiting nervously for their transaction to clear . Oddly enough though, come September this year, no one will be handing over a nice big cheque at registration. Furthermore, there’s a good chance the university sector as a whole may never see any of the £27,00 fees they are apparently paying. It’s almost as if, despite the protests and demands, they’re not paying £9,000 at all…

This is important as everyone, from the very top of the University hierarchy to the  hysterical cretins whose hyperbolic ravings about super-debt and “no poor people in University” probably put of more people that the debt itself, seems to be under the delusion that students deserve more for the money they aren’t actually paying. And because of this, on a front-line level I am being forced to greet every member of the 2012/3 cohort with the deference normally offered to visiting dignitaries, a welcome mint on each feed-back form, and probably a comforting hug…

We're still working on the staff training manual

... and that's not as easy as you may think

Now before I go on, I need to stress I am not in favour of tuition fees. While the job of the University sector is NOT promoting social mobility per se, it should ensure (although I’m loath to quote Michael Howard) that attainment is about ability to learn and not ability to pay. In an ideal world Higher Education would be free, but in that ideal world I would be writing this from a chair upholstered in spun gold while Any Adams, Ellen Page and Myleene Klass frolicked playfully (and nakedly) around my Ottoman harem. And it would be on the Moon. And just as I won’t be drawing up plans to extend the Moorish water garden any times soon, so too will H.E . never be completely free again. However, the system that will come into force next year is, in principle, the fairest (just about) deliverable system.

It’s free at the point of entry

There are only two other real solutions to the issue of paying for Higher Education.

The first solution is to muddle along as we did with £3/4,000 up front for some and not others. This too isn’t fair because, as always, it’s the downtrodden ‘not actually starving’ workers that suffer, the squeezed middle as they say. There’s more on this below (Who are the ‘rich’), but to put it anecdotally,  had my brother and I been born two years later I’m not entirely sure we could have afforded £7,000 a year fees. The fact my parents, who had somewhat inauspicious/deprived (economically at least) beginnings, earned their doctorates and had successful careers may have meant their own children were priced out of the university sector, that *Daily Mail voice* they’d spent 30years paying taxes to support. Also, the University budget has been massively cut, so the only option would be to raise fees incrementally for everyone. Thus the amount of cash your parents can fork out in a lump sum would even more become the stumbling block to Higher Education. Thus not fair.

The second is to make University free by returning to the grant system, which in turn would mean a drastic reduction in the number of University places and indeed Universities. Personally I’m in favour of this because we don’t need 50% of people with University degrees. Given the occasional reports of the shocking failings of compulsory education (stories about reading/writing age etc.), it’d be far better to make sure at 100% of people can read a book without pictures before we look to H.E. Equally, there were 50+ graduates for each job before the recession; there are simply too many graduates with too many middling degrees in middling subjects. When recruiters for office temp jobs are putting anyone with less than a 2:1 at the back of the pile,  you know there is a problem of over supply. And we could quite happily scrap the bottom 20 ‘universities’ and not notice; I worked for one of the bottom 50, and in clearing we were admitting students with two D grades at A-Level. Does someone who only just passed semi-compulsory education deserve a 3-year jolly in the tertiary sector? However given that in the public sphere, a right to a equal chance for higher education has been confused with simply a right to it, no one is going to advocate preventing little Britney for the ‘experience’ of University just because she can barely spell her own name. More importantly, given the differences in performance between the private and state school sector and unless admissions were tightly controlled, a vast reduction in places would mean the majority would inevitably go to the private sector students. And this is also not fundamentally fair.

Although handle bar moustaches deserve a come back

The University of Bolton graduating class in Sociology 2018?

If we want a situation a) where there is still the opportunity for every person, from the bright kids struggling in a city-centre crumbling school to the workshy slacker who just wants to be out of the sun, to go to University and b) where  the up front costs won’t be prohibitive to many, a system where the education itself is free but you may need to pay it back at some point is really the only solution. Which brings us to

The Graduate tax; or how I learned to stop worrying and accept I’m not paying £9,000.

The system itself is a graduate tax. Because if you graduate and earn a graduate salary you pay an additional tax than someone who didn’t graduate but is earning a graduate-level salary isn’t. In fact, it’s actually slightly better than a proper tax as there is finite limit to pay back (i.e. ‘the debt’). Now there are some good argument against a graduate tax; people who are successful (and don’t become bankers who declare their earnings as capital gains and therefore pay the shockingly low tax rate introduced by New Labour) pay more overall tax  anyway and do so at a high rate of tax, and this is hard to disagree with this. All I can really say is that taxes, from the window tax to the income tax, have been introduced for specific needs. Therefore, we can conceptualise this tax as not so much paying for your education, as the person’s after you. It’s a tax to pay for higher education as a whole. So we can see this tax as a sort of nationwide alumni payment; you benefited from a free education and it’s your turn to support the next generation. This isn’t how previous generations footed the bill granted, but the argument of “how things used to be” is something of a straw man upon which I could unleash my own until the battle ground resembles the stable of a particularly messy horse.

We simply called this battle "The harvest"

So many needless deaths

The beauty of the news system, and the reason it’s fairer, is the amount you pay (if any) can be attributed to how useful your course was to your career. Like everyone until next year, I will start paying my Student Loan back when I earn around £15,000 a year. As a wage this is nothing, this is probably what you would be earning if, instead of university, you started at 18 in a call centre and were relatively good at your job. But by setting the amount at the average starting graduate salary (as this damn fine video from the University of Plymouth shows) everyone should grasp the clear point that you only pay anything if you have benefited from the education everyone else paid for. At the very worst, should upon completing your degree in classics you begin to rake in 21k as a professional circus clown, you’re at least paying for the opportunity to have studied a intellectually fulfilling but economically useless subject (in the eyes of some anyway – I disagree btw and this could be a topic in itself). Remember, even then just being a graduate in any subject-  again in a subject you may have simply been intellectually curious about – will likely still pay off greatly . It’s philosophically actually quite selfish; if you never benefit from going to university, they you don’t have to pay for anyone else to go.

Granted, it is an extra payment (although just over £300 a year at the lowest level isn’t a bank breaker) but unlike say the loan I took out to pay for my MSc, no one is coming round with a bat should you become unemployed. It’s a very special sort of debt it’s based on performance only. Like income tax but for graduates only…

So, as I’ve suggested, the system is basically workable as a long term solution to funding for the H.E. sector that ensures participation is not dependent on the liquid assets of your parents. However, despite the fact it makes university free and costs only occur when you’re personally earning a reasonable amount of money, there are worries on how this will affect social mobility and the rich/poor divide. But…

If I were a rich man…

One of the arguments is the notion that “Rich parents will simply pay off their children’s debt”, that’s pay off twenty seven frekking grand in case you weren’t paying attention. There’s an odd assumption, especially on the left but also in the general discourse on this issue, that one is either a worker in a sulfur mine or a powdered wig wearing member of the aristocracy. Unless you grew up on an estate apparently your parents can just give you £27,000.

Yep, this was pretty much my home until we downsized to a bank account

Yep, this was pretty much my home until we downsized to a bank account

There’s a massive demographic gap between “can pay a £27,000 cash lump sum” and being functionally poor. Yes, there is the issue of the 1%’ers, but these people are so wealthy compared to national averages they wouldn’t be affected if every new student had to present the vice chancellor with a solid gold statue of Adam Smith himself. The argument actually applies to so few people (say, I dunno 1/100) that to use them here as a rich/poor argument is absurd. Unless we embrace communism in it’s bloody, brutal and dystopian totality, having VERY rich parents is going to give someone an easier life regardless of what happens.

I’m just a poor boy from a poor family

This is the part of the debate that makes me the most angry, for three reasons. The first is obvious if you’ve been paying attention so far: if not, this system is free at the point of entry and any debt you have is only paid off when you’re earning enough not to be classed as poor, again, like a tax. This is also why those from poorer families should NOT be excluded from the fees. This makes sense when fees are up-front for obvious reasons, but now any debt payment (or rather taxation) is dependent on what the student does with their life, exempting individuals means a person is essentially inheriting their parents’ tax bracket.

The second is more important and the blame lies with those who took the genuine issue of funding for education and ran with it straight off into the valley of hysteria. There is research which suggests poverty breeds debt-aversion. And many applicants from non-traditional backgrounds are already put off applying to prestigious universities as they don’t believe ‘their sort’ would fit in. Hell, I would have felt the same as an undergraduate at my current University; a place where the rifle club suggests you bring your own and there’s a stable in case one doesn’t want to leave Buttercup alone on the family estate. So logically the prospect of having £27k of debt is going to lower University applications even more from those with poorer backgrounds. Except it shouldn’t for the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

By blowing what is in essence an issue of a graduate tax so out of proportion, there is a good chance the anti-tuition fee protesters have driven  from higher education the very people whom  they claimed to be championing. Remember that while under the old system the fees were waved for some, most paid either the full or an attenuated amount. So by managing to frame the new fees as a giant credit card debt instead of a progressive (ish) tax to provide higher education for whoever wants it, they have likely put off many would may have benefited from the free-at-entry system. The issue therefore is again not about the student debt, but being more accurate and objective in how the system is explained to potential students.

So, not exactly the result they desired. But lets hope they learn a lesson for the next campaign

Don't buy this unbelievably comfortable and irresistibly sexy seal fur coat

Don't buy this unbelievably comfortable and irresistibly sexy seal fur coat

Halls of palatial residence

The final reason, and slightly separated from the others,  is that by concentrating on fees, attention has been drawn away from the hidden costs of University, especially the forgotten issue of housing.

Student accommodation is shockingly expensive, and mainly because Universities stopped building (or knocked down) traditional halls in favour of luxury private flats. Back in my undergraduate days (which were only… 9 years ago… oh), I though £85 a week was stupidly expensive for these flats (that I never stayed in fyi) but now some are nearly £200 a week. There’s no way anyone from a poorer background could afford that, meaning should they go to university, they may be forced to choose one within commuting distance of their parents house. The fees should have been accepted as what they are, the least worst choice, and instead focus placed on providing cost of living grants for poorer students. But alas that was lost amongst the sit-ins and and placards.

At least someone got their Moorish garden :-(

This is actually one of the budget choices for accommodation

The best thing in life are fees

I’m not happy the tuition fees are now as they are. I wish it wasn’t the case that any student had to pay for their own education and that and the country saw universities and scholarship as the public good they are. But, partly due to the economic situation, partly due to a sort of Luddite, anti-intellectual snobbery and partly because past governments spent too much time marketing the University experience a while reducing focus on the academic and scholarly side, this simply won’t happen: Yes university can be a fantastic experience, but if you just want to meet and sleep with different and interesting people I suggest joining the merchant navy. Quite frankly if the threat of ‘super debt’ puts off anyone who just wanted to avoid working for three extra years, for me it’s it was worth it alone.

While there are separate issues surrounding whether the changes will actually adequately fund higher eduction and how the £9/6,000 fees will alter the relationship between the best and worst institutions, we have to accept they are the least worst choice available. The point I’m trying to make is that, fundamentally, the students are not actually paying £9,000 for their education and perpetuating the myth this is the case is not doing anyone any good. From a personal point of view this means being forced into endless and insufferable dealings with undergraduates, that thanks to a modern “everyone’s special”  education already have an entitlement complex, who now have an even greater sense of their central position in the Higher Education universe.

More important than my own selfish whinings however is that viewing the interaction between student and university as a direct payment, rather than a generalised graduate tax to support future graduates, will not only put off those who the protesters were meant to defend but will also dangerously (and illusionary) monetizing the higher education system. When you believe you have bought a degree, bought the time of the lecturer or research staff, why should you have to rely on yourself? You’ve paid to be taught, not to spend days shifting through material for a question never mind an answer. If we’re not careful we risk turning the Higher Education system into little more than advanced daycare for spoiled children.