Tuition fees: let’s get rid of them

tuition fees

A good example of a student who qualified for university despite apparently
not being able to do simple arithmetic (and who didn’t pay tuition fees)

by Paul Phillips

There has been no more transparently bad political concept in recent times than Gordon Brown’s swivel-eyed determination that 50% of the population should go to university. Tuition fees are a direct result of his political prejudice.

Almost 600,000 students applied to enrol at university last year. That means, taking three years as the degree norm, almost two million people are now attending university.

Before Brown’s intervention, there would have been around 40% of that number. And remember, at that level university education was free. The cost to the taxpayer might have been around £32bn (that’s assuming the average cost was £40,000 per student).

Whatever the real cost, and whatever the real number, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that on the same basis the cost today is around £72bn. Gordon Brown never explained that, did he? That he was throwing £40bn at a problem that didn’t really exist, purely for social engineering and politically motivated purposes.

And then he lost the election (you’d almost think he knew he would) and left it to his successors to pay the political price. Where’s that £40bn going to come from? The poor LibDems saw the writing on the wall, and have since paid the price. In came tuition fees, out went the LibDems.

And, following the law of unintended consequences, here are some reasons why that money has negatively affected everyone (not just the LibDems) – from the genuinely bright and academic, to the taxpayer, to employers, and to the debt-carrying students who should never have gone to university in the first place.

  1. For the genuinely bright, degrees are now devalued. It’s utter nonsense to say that a degree will mean you earn on average 15% more over your lifetime. That may well have been true when fewer than one million truly bright people were earning a degree every three years. But it can no longer be true when two million, many not-so-bright, are. That’s simple arithmetic.
  2. Here’s an example (from real life) of how degrees have been devalued. A student sets her heart on becoming a forensic psychologist. She gets excellent GCSE results, and excellent A level grades. She is clearly a university candidate. But then, towards the end of her final degree year, it dawns on her: this degree isn’t really going to help too much. The market is too crowded; I need to mark myself out from the crowd, she says. So she signs up for a Masters. Good for her. Good to think it through. But in the overall scheme of things, when graduates start to think of themselves as also-rans, not a good thing at all.
  3. Funded initially by the taxpayer, people are going to university (and ramping up their own debt) when they are not suited to academic life. Given the choice, who wouldn’t postpone entering the workplace for another three years, and hang the fees? But why give them the choice?
  4. Thirty percent of those now going to university lack the literacy and numeracy skills to start their degree work. This begs the question: how did they get the A level results to qualify? That’s another discussion. But it also clarifies why employers are so appalled at the lack of basic skills of school leavers entering the workplace.
  5. Whether or not education is about making our people fit for the workplace, it must, surely, be part of the aim? We are all going to have to work, sooner or later. But not everyone needs a degree in order to put their foot on the employment ladder.

So what’s the answer? That’s for another time. But first we have to acknowledge that degrees should mark out our brightest and best. We need to cut back to a realistic number of our people for whom degree study is a) suitable and b) affordable. Get rid of tuition fees and make university education free again for those people. That’s the radical option.

Of course, if you still think all should have prizes, and hang the debt, then you might want to take a look at this. Money expert Martin Lewis tears apart many tuition fee myths. The end result appears to be that we, the taxpayer, will still bear the cost. If Lewis is right, very few people will end up repaying very little.


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Paul has worked as a journalist, as a songwriter and producer, as a magazine publisher and partner in a design agency. Since leaving school aged 17 and spending three months doing hard manual labour as a gardener, all of his occupations have been sedentary.