(Note: I published this piece first at the London School of Economics’ General Election 2015 blog on 06.02.15…)
“How can we bring down the headline £9,000 per year figure?” seems to be a challenge that Labour Party policymakers have set themselves ahead of the General Election, perhaps concerned that higher fees could deter participation, especially among society’s less privileged groups, and that too many student loans are being written off. These are valid concerns and, to some extent, the “intense focus” on the £9,000 headline figure is justified: since English universities became the most expensive in Europe, enrolment rates for mature and part time students have fallen sharply. Moreover, estimates continue to suggest that the new funding system will prove more expensive for the taxpayer than the one it replaced.
But there’s a risk that trying to reduce the headline figure will actually cause further damage. The first thing to remember is that £9,000 is an irrelevant sum to most graduates because they’ll never repay their debt in full. Whether higher fees deter young people from applying to university is difficult to gauge. There’s no evidence to support that position yet, even among those from the lowest socio-economic quintile, but it is possible that early trends are being skewed by a lack of meaningful labour market alternatives.
Labour is reportedly toying with the idea of capping fees at £6,000 per year. But university VCs are already demanding to know how the lost revenue would be replaced. It would be a bold government that asked the Higher Education sector to do it all a bit cheaper. Relative to the share of GDP received, many indicators suggest that UK universities already punch above their weight.
One solution would be to change the income threshold at which graduates begin their repayments. At the moment, it’s £21,000 per year. It would be very easy for any government to raise revenue by reducing this threshold, or by freezing it as inflation rises, thereby making graduates repay more of their loans more quickly. But such a move raises all kinds of equity issues. Remember that when £9,000 fees were introduced the biggest losers, relative to the previous model, were middle earning graduates. As the Sutton Trust noted, the “average teacher” would now pay back around £42,000 of student debt, and still be making repayments when they reach their early 50s. Under the previous system, the same teacher would have repaid around £25,000 and completed at the age of 40. In relative terms, changing the income threshold would hurt low and middle earning graduates more than those on higher incomes, and cutting the headline figure to £6,000 may well have a similar effect.
So what are the alternatives? As a recent report by the Higher Education Commission concluded, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to higher education funding. But the question that Labour might want to begin asking itself is “Can those who benefit most from Higher Education contribute more?” Such thinking immediately brings to mind the Graduate Tax, a phrase that increasingly means whatever its user wants it to mean, as several commentators have noted. A ‘pure’ form of Graduate Tax, levied against all income at the same rate, would be controversial for practical reasons – very high earners may choose to leave the country rather than keep paying. It would also raise issues of fairness – should any graduate be required to foot the bill for their degree thousands of times over?
The kind of funding system that Labour might want to think about is one that demands more for longer from the very highest earners. At the moment, it’s possible for some graduates to repay their loans relatively quickly, thereby dodging interest. But what if everyone had to contribute something for the full thirty years? Just a regular flat, fee for those lucky enough to have finished their loan repayments and still be earning a healthy salary?
Would anyone complain about fairness if the resultant income allowed the 2012 funding system, with its safeguards for lower earning graduates, to be preserved at less expense for the taxpayer? And for the all-important repayment threshold to rise with inflation, as promised, for all graduates? Might it even allow further support for students struggling to get by on inadequate maintenance loans, or for hard-hit groups, such as mature and part time students?
The main opposition to a Graduate Tax seems to be ideological rather than economic. We’re told that, in the marketplace of Higher Education, “competition, with suitable regulation, benefits the student”. To treat all graduates equally is to make free market behaviour, such as price discrimination, more difficult. And that raises the toughest question of all: “What are universities for?”
Is the optimum model of Higher Education is one that drives up quality by using dubious metrics to pit university against university? Or should the goal now be to reclaim Higher Education as a public good as well as a private good, and to accept that some graduates will earn more than their peers simply because they enter better-paid professions? Labour need to ask the right question.