Response to the Liberal Democrat ‘Tuition fees in higher education’ consultation

After spending several thousand words responding to the ‘Power to people and communities’ consultation yesterday, I didn’t feel like doing the same for the consultation on tuition fees, especially as the consultation group clearly have decided to propose a graduate tax and are just looking for a bit of feedback before finalising their ideas. So here’s my response to them.

Firstly, I’m disappointed that this consultation appears to believe that discussing the funding of undergraduate higher education can take place in a vacuum, without any consideration of the knock-on effects to the rest of the HE sector and the way universities work. This sort of thinking was around in 2010–11 with the belief that we were only making changes to tuition fees ending up with the effect privatisation of UK Higher Education with the knock-on effects we see today. The dog-eat-dog, every institution for itself attitude that was launched by the new fee system (and the withdrawal of most direct government funding for teaching) has led directly to the current situation where solidarity across the university system has eroded, and inspired those who now wish to dismantle the USS as part of a race to the bottom to get staff to accept worse and worse conditions while billions are spent on new buildings in order to keep the tuition fee income rolling in.

So, any recommendations that come from this review need to understand the consequences they can have, and the group working on these proposals have to show a bit more initiative in thinking about the long-term implications of any plan they put forward.

I don’t intend to answer the questions as set out by the consultation document, as those are clearly designed to lead the responder down a certain alley and agree that a graduate tax is a good thing. For instance, the assumption that higher education is at least partly a private good is in there to make us think that there has to be an individual contribution. If you genuinely believe this, then have the courage of your convictions to apply the same logic to all education which can be seen as a private good by the same criteria. Should we be hypothecating taxes from everyone who goes to a primary school to pay for the cost of their education? On a wider note, if I receive medical treatment from the NHS, I’m clearly receiving a private good, so should we be introducing a patients tax? How about a tax on victims of crime to pay for the private good they receive when the police arrest someone (we could have different rates depending on how successful the police investigation was!)

It’s this atomistic approach that holds everyone has to pay for everything individually and there can be no wider social benefit and solidarity that made our previous policy — which flew in the face of the social liberal thinking that had characterised the party for a century — such a disaster for us. Now all we can do is propose a tweak to it that still holds to the same tired old rational choice individualistic dogma.

So, I would like to invite the group to go back and think again about what sort of policy they want to propose and what vision of society and higher education’s role in that they have. Unless they can come up with a system that deals with higher education as a whole we, as a party and a country, are going to be doomed to repeat this sort of exercise again and again every few years until the whole thing collapses. Just making a tweak here and a tweak there in search of a short-term fix and an electoral boost is not going to solve the problem, it’s just attempting to kick the can further down the road in the hope someone else will be there to catch it when the flaws in the latest temporary solution become too obvious.

I would also invite the group to think more carefully about questions of intergenerational fairness which they have effectively dismissed with their rejection of any sort of retrospective tax. We’ve now had two decades of people who’ve clearly benefited from their higher education yet didn’t pay a penny towards it telling the younger generations that ‘those who benefit from it should pay for it’. The hypocrisy of this has been perpetuated by all parties but no one has yet made any attempt to address it and instead has dismissed it through such tricks as saying retrospective taxes are unfair. They may well be, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t spend some time exploring other options that would be fairer and would address a lot of this long-standing grievance.

In educational terms, this paper does not cover a wide enough range to be publishable. I would advise the group to revise it and resubmit.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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