Opinion

Society pays a cost for high tuition fees

Tuition fees in England are vastly inflated compared with other countries. Why have we set the bar so high for young people?

Illustration of a person climbing towards a degree certificate

The cost of a degree in England is getting steeper and steeper. Image: Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

It’s school exams season – the period that a child’s entire education has been gunning towards. Not to overstate things. 

Whatever the exam, in whichever part of the UK, there is immense pressure. Coming out of Covid, lockdowns, isolation, dislocation, strikes and continual socio and political flux, fourth, fifth and sixth years are heading to echoey halls to take their tests.

They’re told they need to learn both many pieces of subject knowledge, plus the very specific skills that will be employed during exams. And only during exams. And then, come August, they’ll be greeted with a cacophonist clang of chin-stroking commentators telling them that if they get the results they expected/hoped for/needed/bettered it means little because the exams aren’t really hard any more. OR, if they don’t get the results they needed they’ll have a host of well-meaning handwringers saying don’t worry, look at me, I got godawful results and it never held me back. I’m now running a massive FT100 listed company; or, depending, on whose turn it is, I’m now manager of Leeds United.  

Which is not massively helpful, coming as it does at the end of a period in which young lives have been focused on the outcome. Into this moment, enter Keir Starmer. After pledging to get rid of university tuition fees if Labour were elected, he now says he won’t.  

This hasn’t caused much uproar because the prevailing argument is that a university education will benefit those who take it so they should carry the cost burden. It has also been argued that the repayment aspect of tuition fees helps those who are less well off as there is no upfront charge and they can benefit and then not worry about repayment until they are earning certain amount (over £22,000); that is scaled up as they earn more.  

Added to this is the public purse. Covering university tuition fees would cost about £9 billion a year. And there are other things to do with that money. 

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All of these elements are challengeable. We have just accepted the argument that students are the only ones to benefit without looking at wider societal uplift. A more highly skilled workforce is better for any nation, both because the qualified can do more and it also raises productivity. If students suddenly decided, en masse, that the £9,000 plus they need to pay a year in England for undergraduate courses was too much, and they removed themselves from third-level education, suddenly we’d see the societal cost.  

We’ve also just quietly accepted the ramping up to that figure as a given. It wasn’t so long ago that tuition fees were zero, and then just over £3,000. The intergovernmental OECD revealed recently that England’s fees were now the highest domestic fees in the world. So why is it OK to bill at that level? Incidentally, high performing South Korea charges a little over £4,000 per year. In Germany, it’s three figures. 

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And as for repaying as a kind of incremental tax, that is fine if the rate hadn’t increased too in recent times. So, if graduates don’t start to earn quickly, then the lump they’ll owe will grow. Even when they do get there will they be able to pay back enough to quickly hammer into the capital amount? 

For what? Last week IBM said it was freezing recruitment as it expected AI to replace 7,800 jobs in the future. Which begs the question – if AI is galloping through jobs now, where are the jobs for heavily indebted graduates in a generation going to come from?

This is not a question for those going through the exams mill. To each of them, good luck. It is hard. But it won’t last forever. And futures will emerge. For the rest of us, it’s time we had a proper national conversation about what we expect young people to do and to pay for over the rest of their lives. We’ve allowed drift for too long. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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