James Lawson of Students for Tuition Fees Reform is a student at St Edmund Hall, Oxford University, an Adam Smith Institute Research Associate and the Treasurer of Oxford University Conservative Association.
It seems student activism is back, and with it, occupations across the country and even violence. In Oxford, campaigners invaded the Bodleian Library. Their strategy is baffling; somehow, by disregarding the property rights and rules of the University, and causing great nuisance to fellow students who were actually trying to work they hoped to win us over.
Though the NUS claims to serve students, its response to reform has done much to damage social mobility. By mischaracterising the government proposals, and advancing an image of insurmountable debts, they risk scaring applicants from poorer background away from university.
So what does the Coalition actually propose? In brief, the Government plans to offer loans to all students to cover their fees. These are to be repaid only when graduates are earning over £21,000 (compared to the current threshold of £15,000), written off after 30 years. The fee cap is to be raised from £3,290 to £9,000 per year, with those charging over £6,000 per year contributing to a National Scholarships programme.
So, the Government does indeed plan to shift more of the liability onto students. However, this is a fair scheme. One must remember that no students will face upfront fees and payments are adjusted based on future salary, hence no student (regardless of wealth, class or racial background) should feel dissuaded. All graduates will benefit from lower monthly and annual bills, if the reforms are implemented. Those from poor backgrounds, and those who themselves earn below average, will be taken out of the payment system altogether.
Nobody denies that education provides public benefits. Yet, by shifting more of the burden onto the primary beneficiaries of education, one reduces the injustice of redistributing resources away from those who do not go to university, and on average will be poorer than graduates. It is simply not fair to expect milkmen, builders, and self-made small scale businessmen, among others, to pay blindly for future bankers, lawyers and engineers.
As the payments are adjusted based on the success of future earnings, and thus actual ability to pay, those who go to university but are unlucky enough not to derive significant benefits, are not harmed. The repayment threshold will also adjust in line with average earnings, ensuring the policy remains generous for future generations. Moreover, the government reforms promise to make maintenance grants more generous, and increase the number of places with financial support.
By comparison, the NUS proposed graduate tax, which also shifts the burden onto students; risks further damaging work incentives, and the UK’s competitiveness. Furthermore, it is a general rule of dedicated taxes that their links quickly break down and they are used to appropriate increasing sums by stealth. National Insurance used to be used for a national insurance scheme, now it is just a tax on jobs.
Finally, the benefits of a direct link between the student and the provider via fees must be noted. Such benefits have long been recognised, since Adam Smith’s ground-breaking work, The Wealth of Nations. Though Smith enjoyed the well-resourced libraries of Oxford, which weren’t occupied by disrupting protestors in those days, he felt that the professors had given up, “even the pretence of teaching”. This unfortunate result arose because Oxford professors were not reliant on payment for their teaching, unlike in Smith’s Glasgow, but lived off large endowments.
When funding is provided automatically (through the government), market signals are distorted. There are thus limited incentives to provide a quality service. Fortunately, the NUS is not the only voice out there, with Students for Tuition Fees Reform seeing its Facebook support grow rapidly. Many of us have read the Browne Review and honestly examined the Government's proposals. Given the Coalition’s generous deal, we reject the NUS’s deceit and urge MPs of all parties, especially wavering Liberal Democrats, to vote in favour of progress.