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Ed Southgate looks at the nature of the tuition fee debate, arguing that while tuition fees should not be abolished, this shouldn’t be the focus of debate surrounding higher education.

With any debate, we must consider the nature of it and the context we place it in. Now, I often hear the phrase “University should be free” a lot which, from the terms ‘should’ suggesting a sense of moral urgency and ‘free’ indicating an economic benefit, places the debate of tuition fees very much within the context of economics and the context of morals.

We must also recognise that the initial proposition “university should be free” is incomplete. Indeed, for whom will university be “free”? This phrase actually ends: “for students”, or “for those who directly benefit from it”. University will never be free as such, so the nature of debate is not one of tuition fees, but one of who should pay and how, which by extension puts the question of how many students should attend university at the centre.

But I will firstly briefly discuss my opposition to abolishing tuition fees for students in those two contexts of morals and economics.

A high national debt is undoubtedly damaging our economy and should concern everyone

Economically, we must prioritise control of public spending. In January 2017, the UK public sector debt was at £1.73trillion.  This has resulted from the UK government spending far more than it raises for far too long. If we are to scrap anything, scrapping this debt must be our priority.

Without going into too much detail, such a high national debt is undoubtedly damaging our economy and should concern everyone. Consequences of such a debt include lower national savings and income, higher interest rates (leading to higher tax and spending cuts), a decreased ability to respond to unexpected problems and an increased risk of a general fiscal crisis.

With such a dangerously pressing issue, it is hard to justify, both morally and economically, spending another £10bn and £100bn each year to scrap future fees and past graduate debts respectively.

Of course, there are moral arguments to discuss. Jeremy Corbyn presented his moral case at Glastonbury, claiming that tuition fees discourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university. If this was true it would make for an exceedingly compelling case – no one should be restricted from achieving their potential simply because of their financial background.

But, alas, he is incorrect. In January 2017, UCAS published a document which showed that whilst UK applications were down by 5%, applications from disadvantaged students continued to rise. Tuition fees are not having the negative affect Corbyn claimed.

We must, therefore, ask why university applications from disadvantaged students are increasing when tuition fees are increasing too. This, I’d suggest, comes down to two principles: the first being the generally-accepted view that university increases our life prospects, and the second being that we the students do not actually pay our tuition yet.

As we know, we are all given a loan to cover the cost of tuition. We will only start paying back this loan when we earn £21,000, at which point we will only pay 9% of what we earn. This firstly means that we will be paying an unnoticeably small amount (if we earn, say, £30,000, we will only pay back £67 a month), but also means that we only pay back our loan if we can afford it. In other words, only if university has proved worthwhile in increasing our prospects and getting us that better job.

Around 58.8% of graduates are in non-graduate employment – a job where a degree was not needed

Furthermore, if after thirty years our loan has not been repaid then it will be written off completely. No one will hunt us down demanding repayments we cannot afford. This is not unreasonable and is certainly not all that morally objectionable.

Advocates of students not paying their tuition often argue a more educated generation benefits all of society. The reasons given for this, often brief, are that businesses need employees with graduate-skills and so on. Like with Corbyn’s claim, this would make for a very compelling case if it was true. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests quite the opposite.

It is rather damning when we consider a report published by the CBI and Pearson which showed that employers are increasingly unhappy with graduates’ attitude to work. According to the report, one third of employers believe their graduate employees to lack cultural awareness whilst 40% believe their graduate employees lack customer awareness. Others suggest that millennial employees lack basic etiquette and need too much ego-massaging. This is not the best foundation to support claims that graduates are massively benefitting their employer overall to the extent that their tuition should be funded by someone else.

Perhaps more importantly and statistically sound, around 58.8% of graduates are in non-graduate employment – a job where a degree was not needed. This is a worrying statistic which does not convince me that every single graduate is going to benefit society in a graduate-like way.

This is also perhaps the main moral objection within the tuition fees debate. That so many graduates can go to university, not benefit from it and live with the debt for 30 years. But this is not a question of whether the government should then subsidise them (after the debt is written off the government has subsidised them anyway). This is part of a much wider issue, namely that university has become too much of an inefficient and costly cultural expectation as opposed to an academic aspiration.

As we know, students were required to pay fees, starting from 1998, because the government could not afford to subsidise them anymore. Their inability to do so comes partly from the rapidly increasing numbers of students going to university resulting in the overall cost for the government increasing.

This is an important context which, tied with my concern that university is a cultural expectation, suggests that if we are to have a debate on tuition fees we must also have a debate on student numbers – especially when such high numbers arguably resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ of university.

Indeed, Tony Blair’s government wanted to get 50% of young people into higher education, which inevitably meant students would be admitted even if they were not entirely academically suited. Existing in a model where students are essentially customers, universities did not want students to fail as it would be seen as failing their customers; so, universities began making their exam papers easier. This triggered a widespread trend of grade inflation.

So, the increased number of students firstly meant the government could not afford to help, then that universities lost some academic rigour, and that many graduates are not benefiting in terms of employment. Surely this is grounds to ask ourselves why we go to university and whether it is worth it (and, by extension, why should someone else pay for my tuition when it may not be worth it)?

But then we encounter the problem of not knowing what else to do (symptomatic of university being so much of a cultural expectation that there is very little else). We must, therefore, provide young people with more options, we need to provide alternate pathways for them to develop and progress. An increase in apprenticeship schemes, for example, is something I would be particularly supportive of.

All this leads to one conclusion: young people need more options other than university and more suited to their abilities in order to progress successfully through the world of work. It should not be solely a question of who pays for your tuition.

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